What is a "good" job, anyway?

The answer is vital to public policy in the 21st century -- but it's not nearly as simple as you might think

Published April 26, 2011 11:01AM (EDT)

Workers form a picket line at a Waste Management Inc. facility in Seattle, Wednesday, April 21, 2010. Seattle-area garbage workers represented by Teamsters union Local 174 went on strike Wednesday morning. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)   (Ted S. Warren)
Workers form a picket line at a Waste Management Inc. facility in Seattle, Wednesday, April 21, 2010. Seattle-area garbage workers represented by Teamsters union Local 174 went on strike Wednesday morning. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (Ted S. Warren)

News that McDonald’s plans to hire 50,000 workers nationwide has prompted a predictable wave of commentary about the replacement of good jobs in America with bad "McJobs." Few, if any, would consider a poorly paid position at McDonald’s a good job for anyone but perhaps an entry-level teenage worker or the most desperate job-seeker. But it is much easier to reach a consensus on the definition of a bad job than to agree on what constitutes a good job.

Is a good job one in a particular industry or sector? Many of the jobs in manufacturing that are being lost to offshoring and automation pay higher wages and come with more benefits than many of the jobs in the growing service sector, where four out of 10 Americans already work. It is often assumed that there is something in the nature of manufacturing itself that makes manufacturing jobs good jobs. But manufacturing jobs in the automobile, steel and other industries are good jobs only because those industries were successfully unionized in the 1930s. Before the success of the unions, factory jobs were among the worst in the country. Up until the 1920s, steelworkers were frequently forced to work 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, for low wages, with no benefits. Factory jobs became good jobs only when the unions, backed by the U.S. government during the Depression and World War II, were able to extort contracts, benefits and decent wages from employers.

The converse is also true: Many service-sector jobs in the U.S., from restaurant work to cleaning to low-wage healthcare jobs, are bad jobs because they are not unionized. In many Western European countries with lower levels of inequality and more upward social mobility than today’s regressing United States, many service-sector workers and even white-collar professionals have been unionized. Somehow their hotels and restaurants remain in business.

Service-sector jobs, then, can be good, unionized jobs with benefits. And manufacturing jobs can be terrible jobs, as they were for much of American history and as they are today in China, where the Foxconn corporation’s company town recently had to put up netting around its dormitories in response to a wave of suicides by exploited serfs making components for U.S. multinationals like Apple.

Closely related to the question of whether a good job is a union job is the question of the length of employment contracts. From the perspective of organized labor, a good job is one in which there are fixed annual or other contracts, with negotiated wages and benefits. There was a time in the early history of the American republic, however, when fixed contracts were associated with indentured servitude. At-will employment, which permits workers to quit at any time, as well as to be fired at any time, was considered a great advance by early Americans over traditional feudal British labor contracts of various kinds.

Is a good job one that comes with employer-provided benefits? Two groups in American history have supported employer benefits, in preference to government benefits: large corporations and unions. Large corporations, beginning in the early 20th century, viewed the provision of health insurance, defined benefit pensions and other benefits as a way of reducing the attraction of unions or collectivist politics to workers. Labor unions, while they may support universal benefits as well, have their own reason for supporting employer-based benefits: It gives them with something they can win from employers and provide to their members.

But many progressives and social democrats have always preferred universal, portable government programs like Social Security and Medicare that are identical and available to all citizens. If you accept this logic, then a good job is not necessarily one that comes with benefits from the employer. Indeed, if an adequate universal economic security system existed, there would be no need for employer-based health insurance or employer-provided pensions or employer-subsidized 401K retirement accounts to exist. Employers would provide workers with wages and nothing more.

Speaking of wages, what is the relationship between wages and the definition of a good job? Americans have answered this question in radically different ways. From the late 19th century until the 1960s, a "living wage" was often identified with a "family wage" sufficient for a male breadwinner to support not only himself but also a non-working wife and several children. To the consternation of later generations of liberals, the fiery Irish-American labor activist "Mother" Jones said that she supported unionization because it would permit men to make enough money that their wives could stay at home and raise their children. During the golden age of American capitalism between World War II and the 1960s, the breadwinner wage system was reflected in a gendered job system, pressure on women to be homemakers, and practices like firing female schoolteachers when they married, on the assumption that their husbands would support them and their jobs could be given to single women who needed them more.

Victories in the civil rights era against workplace sexism and the migration into the workforce of most adult women, including most mothers of small children, shattered the family wage system. One result of the increase in two-earner couples is an ambiguity about the phrase "living wage." Is it a two-earner family wage -- that is, a living wage one that can support one working parent and one child, so that a two-earner couple can support two children? Or is it a wage that permits a single working parent to support one, two or more children without depending on welfare?

Similar questions can be asked about the minimum wage. Should the minimum wage be enough to keep a single adult individual out of poverty? Or should the minimum wage be a "living wage" high enough to support children as well as the worker?

The question of what constitutes a good wage is complicated even further by wage subsidies, like the earned income tax credit. Introduced late in the 20th century, the EITC subsidy supplements low wages for poor people in the workforce and has become the largest federal welfare program. The EITC is supported by liberals, because it raises the overall incomes of the working poor, and by conservatives, because it is a disguised subsidy to low-wage employers. But the apparent generosity of the EITC raises troubling questions. Its premise, after all, is that it is acceptable for the minimum wage to be set at such a low level that a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot survive without being dependent on additional subsidies from the government.

A final question about the definition of a good job involves the relationship of the worker to the employer. Is the worker a full-time employee, or a part-time worker, or a consultant working directly for a contractor paid by the employer, like a temp agency? Because high-wage jobs with benefits traditionally have been full-time jobs, the growth in the number of workers who are not full-time employees is often denounced as a trend that should worry us. But if it is access to benefits that makes full-time employment good, then a system of universal, publicly provided benefits detached from employers, though not necessarily from work, would level the playing field between traditional 40-hour-a-week, eight-hour-a-day jobs and other arrangements.

We return to the question with which we began: What exactly is a good job? A tentative conclusion is that particular industries do not spontaneously generate good or bad jobs. There can be bad jobs in manufacturing and good jobs in personal services. We can also agree that wages and benefits should be adequate.

Beyond that, however, the consensus is likely to break down quickly, along ideological and partisan lines. Should more workers or fewer be represented by unions who negotiate long-term contracts? Should all employers be compelled by law to provide generous benefits to their employees -- or should the government be responsible, directly or indirectly, for portable, individual-based healthcare and retirement systems that get employers out of the employee welfare business altogether? Should the minimum wage be enough to support an individual adult above the poverty line -- or that adult plus one or more children? Is it acceptable to set the minimum wage so low that many full-time workers must rely not only on their wages but also on welfare programs like the EITC to survive?

These are the questions that must be answered if Americans are to reach a consensus about what constitutes a good job in the 21st century. But before they can be answered, the questions need to be asked.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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