The future of the left since 1884

What workers think about work, and how politics should respond

Last week’s employment figures showed the UK’s employment rate continues to remain at record levels, which will no doubt give Philip Hammond confidence going in to the Autumn Statement. But there’s growing unease about the quality of work that is...


Last week’s employment figures showed the UK’s employment rate continues to remain at record levels, which will no doubt give Philip Hammond confidence going in to the Autumn Statement. But there’s growing unease about the quality of work that is being produced, from low pay and low productivity to exploitative contracts.

But how do these stories stack up against people’s experiences of work? In order to find out, we worked with Ipsos Mori to conduct a face to face survey with over 1,300 people in work in Britain. The results provide a challenge to politicians of all parties to reframe the way they talk about work.

Most people of the people we spoke to tend to enjoy their work, but security at work is in decline, and a significant group of workers don’t like their jobs.

First, the positives. In comparison with a similar survey using the same methodology conducted in 2001, the proportion of people who say they often or always look forward to going to work increased from 49 per cent to 63 per cent today. And today four in five workers say they find their work interesting and enjoyable.

This is a challenge to those politicians who tend only to refer to the problems created by work, and particularly to the minority on the left who talk up the prospects of a world with less work, aided by the increasingly popular idea of a universal basic income.

We found that this sort of language is out of touch with people’s experiences at work, and sensible politicians on the left should not be tempted to indulge in these imaginations of a post-work future. Clearly for the vast majority of people, work is about much more than a pay cheque.

But neither does our survey show that all work is good work, as many politicians on the right would argue. Around one in 10 workers – over 3 million people – do not find their work interesting or enjoyable and rarely or never look forward to it. And the proportion of people saying they feel secure in their work dropped from 77 to 70 per cent over the fifteen-year period.

These survey results show political leaders on the right – including government ministers – who frequently refer to the quantity of jobs created with no discussion of their quality are ignoring a growing group of discontented workers at their peril.

Following the EU referendum’s stark unveiling of a socially stratified Britain, it should be even more concerning to those in government that our research shows working class voters are far more likely than white collar workers to be among this group of those discontent with work.

Ensuring everybody has access to decent, fulfilling work should be an aim of any government, no matter which party is in power. If the Conservatives are serious about their mission to become the ‘party of the workers’ and help those ‘just about managing’ families, an agenda for restoring dignity at work for all needs to be at the heart of their autumn statement.

With a record 31.8 million people in work in the UK there is an obvious electoral rationale behind any aspirant claim to be the ‘party of the workers’. But a political leader wanting to win the hearts, minds and votes of working people will need to speak to where workers are today.

The findings of this report should give succour to political leaders to continue to talk up the value of work and the importance of full employment. And it should put paid to the minority political view that work – in general – is miserable and exploitative.

But the survey also shows that for one in 10 workers – over 3 million people in the UK – work is not providing the fulfilment most people take for granted. Therefore political leaders need to provide a strong offer to those who are enjoying work but for whom it can get better, as well as the unlucky minority, who need to be given more reason to look forward to work.

This comment piece originally appeared on the Times RedBox.

Image: Thomas Hawk


Cameron Tait

Cameron Tait is head of the Changing Work Centre and senior research fellow at the Fabian Society.


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