The importance of understanding how job quality affects U.S. workers and the entire economy, and how to boost access to good jobs
Even during economic expansions and periods of robust employment growth, millions of workers in the United States face economic insecurity and precarious working conditions. Low pay, safety hazards, lack of bargaining power, unstable schedules, discrimination and harassment at work, little access to benefits, surveillance and lack of privacy, and insufficient opportunities for upward career advancement all affect a substantial share of the U.S. labor force and all reduce job quality for workers.
And because most research finds that overall job quality in the United States has declined over the past four decades, lack of access to good employment opportunities both exacerbates existing economic disparities and generates challenges for robust and broad-based economic growth.
Studying job quality acknowledges that research should go beyond top-line statistics, such as employment growth and the unemployment rate, when analyzing the state of the labor market. Additionally, even though pay is an important—and perhaps the most important—component of a good job, there are other employment attributes that shape workers’ experience, opportunities, and employment outcomes. These nuances are part of what makes this topic so ripe for future research that can contribute to the existing body of work on job quality.
As both a rich area for research and a topic of interest for policymakers, a number of government agencies, research centers, and academics have attempted to define and study job quality. In 2022, for instance, the U.S. Department of Labor published a list of good-job principles through its Good Jobs Initiative. These principles include fairness in recruitment and hiring; access to family-sustaining employment benefits; diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at work; empowerment and representation through unions and bargaining power; job security and working conditions; a healthy organizational culture; adequate pay; and opportunities to acquire skills and career advancement.
Similarly, in 2019, Gallup developed a 10-part job-quality index that includes characteristics such as level of pay, pay predictability, stable hours, control over hours and location, benefits, advancement opportunities, and job security by asking thousands of workers about the job traits they care most about.1 Other entities, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the University of Buffalo’s School of Management, also have developed good-job indices to assess and measure the availability of high-quality jobs in the U.S. labor market.
There is a robust body of research on job quality, but many questions remain unanswered
In addition to these initiatives by government agencies and research centers, a number of economists, sociologists, and management scholars have identified and studied several factors that are related to job satisfaction and worker well-being. Economist Dani Rodrik at Harvard University, for instance, recently released a policy report on how to leverage industrial policy to create good jobs. Other academic researchers have examined dignity at work, hours of work, relationships with co-workers and supervisors, autonomy, pay transparency, perceptions of fairness, and the alignment between workers’ values and the content of their work.
Several scholars have studied the economic dynamics, institutions, and structural forces that can affect job quality more broadly. For instance, the term “fissured workplace,” coined by David Weil at Brandeis University, captures how businesses began to outsource and contract out services that were previously done by employees. By breaking down traditional employee-employer relationships, workplace fissuring makes it easier for firms to avoid complying with labor standards and regulations, disrupts career ladders, makes employer-sponsored benefits more difficult to access, and leads to a drop in earnings in the outsourced jobs.
Likewise, academics are examining the causes and consequences of job polarization, or the falling share of middle-wage jobs and the rising share of low- and high-paying jobs in the U.S. labor market. Others study the role of international trade policy and shifts in the industrial composition of the U.S. economy, pointing to the relative decline in manufacturing jobs as an important driver of slow wage growth and the decline of workers’ bargaining power. And other researchers focus on the decline of unions and waning institutional support for organized labor as key factors behind growing inequality and falling job quality.
Yet another branch of research studies disparities in access to high-quality employment opportunities. These inequities include outright employment discrimination, differences in workers’ vulnerability to monopsony power, occupational segregation, occupational crowding, and the devaluation of work disproportionately done by historically marginalized workers. Relatedly, there is a robust body of research studying how the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action policies, and access to public-sector jobs affect the employment outcomes of workers of color and women workers.
The Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s 2023 Request for Proposals offers funding opportunities for scholars examining various drivers of economic inequality, including these and other aspects of job quality. We are especially interested in research that looks at some of the following questions and areas of study:
- The relationship between job quality and economic growth: Has overall job quality in the United States declined or increased? What are the best metrics and definitions to measure job quality? What economic dynamics can spark the creation—or destruction—of high-quality jobs? How do market forces and institutions affect job quality? How has the U.S. occupational structure changed over time, and what are the implications of that change for workers and economic growth? How does job quality relate to aggregate productivity and economic growth?
- Where are, and who has access to, good jobs: What role does race, ethnicity, and gender play in clustering workers in high- or low-quality jobs? To what extent is occupational segregation a manifestation or a driver of labor market disparities? What role do industries and occupations, such as the public sector, play in stalling or promoting economic mobility? What challenges and opportunities do phenomena such as technological change and climate change present for the creation of high-quality jobs? What is the relationship between mechanisms for collective bargaining and job quality?
- How to boost job quality: How can government better enforce labor standards? How does union coverage affect job-quality attributes? Are deterrence mechanisms an efficient way to push back against violations to labor standards? How can technology be leveraged to boost job quality? What is the evidence that, and what are the mechanisms through which, income supports and social infrastructure improve job quality? How does labor law affect job quality (just-cause vs. at-will employment, for example)?
For more information on how to apply, deadlines and requirements, and who is eligible for Equitable Growth funding, please visit the 2023 Request for Proposals website.
1. Using this measure, Gallup found that 40 percent of U.S. workers are in good jobs. They also found that women and workers of color are especially likely to be in bad jobs, with almost one-third of Black women found to be in bad jobs—a higher share than for any other group.