Let’s choose a “good jobs” future of work

We can use the crises of the past eighteen months to reform and upgrade a capitalist system that has let too many workers down.

A close relative of mine is a young man who regularly rails against capitalism.

He has a point.

After all, for all the good our U.S. economic system of free enterprise has done, it also has produced growing economic inequality, reinforced racial disparities, and led to financial insecurity for millions.

These deep flaws in our economy were exposed and exacerbated over the past year and a half.

I heard an earful from my relative as the COVID pandemic took the greatest toll on the physical and financial wellbeing of the poorest Americans and the killing of George Floyd underscored how people of color have long experienced discrimination in the workplace and beyond. Amid all the injustice, many companies raked in record profits, he noted.

Still, I push back in my conversations with my younger relative.

I believe capitalism can be reformed. I believe we can use the crises of the past eighteen months to modify and upgrade an economic system that has let too many workers down. We have an opportunity to choose a future of work that is defined by “good jobs,” where organizations and people both thrive.

Actually, it’s not merely an opportunity – it’s an imperative. For one thing, my relative isn’t alone. Young people in general are skeptical of capitalism, with roughly half having a favorable impression of socialism. What’s more, if we fail to change course, we face a future of extreme inequity and wasted human potential.

So, what’s the alternative?

Researchers – some of them sponsored by my organization – and forward-looking organizations have given us a clear picture of positive options.

In fact, it’s important for us to begin by recognizing we do have options. We have the power to craft the future of our organizations. “The road ahead isn’t a problem to solve; it’s an invitation to create,” says Jen Gresham, a scientist and entrepreneur who has gathered experts to imagine what “Work for Humanity” could look like. Jen adds: “Building a future of work that serves us under these challenging conditions will require nearly everyone’s contribution.” And it starts with the question, “what do we want the future of work to be?”

Thanks to Jen and many others in the field, a consensus is emerging that good jobs today, and in the years ahead, require several things. These include fair pay, opportunities for individual development, purposeful work, a sense of belonging, and a deep feeling of dignity. Jen’s current work is focused on helping small businesses create good jobs by addressing workers’ and employers’ mindsets and skillsets, and reimagining the employer/worker relationship.

MIT professor Zeynep Ton and her colleagues at the Good Jobs Institute have found that decent work meets “Basic Needs” such as physical safety and financial security as well as “Higher Needs” such as belonging, recognition, achievement, and personal growth.

Healthy, trusting relationships at work also are vital. Researchers Rob Cross and Jean Singer studied 100 men and women in 10 organizations and found that people’s connections with others underpins well-being in areas including physical health and resilience.

A voice in decisions at work is another characteristic of good jobs and great workplaces. Millennials and Gen Z employees, who were educated in interactive, participatory ways, all but expect to have a say in their organizations. And they are speaking up to demand their organizations align with their values on matters including social justice and environmental sustainability.

The good news is that good jobs aren’t just good for employees. They are good for employers as well. MIT’s Ton, researchers at consulting firm Great Place to Work, and others have found that high-trust cultures with good jobs lead to better business results. The old adage is true: happy workers make for happy customers.

To be sure, there are challenges ahead. As automation continues to transform work – and eliminates some jobs – we need to reimagine and redesign work to be human-centered, so people can continue to add value and find value in what they do. This means a much more robust approach to retraining and continuing education – within organizations and through institutions such as community colleges and online academies.

It also means we need to recognize that just as we have the power to craft the future of our organizations, we have a choice to make about how technology is deployed by our organizations. Those choices are heavily influenced by public policy we all have a role in influencing. For example, if tax policy favors investments in capital rather than labor, we can change that.

Public policy also is essential for tackling thorny questions of wealth disparities, social justice, education, job creation, and decisions about the balance of investments in capital and labor. Organizations alone can’t fix such issues. But companies can play a constructive role in societal questions touching on work.

A good example is the CEO Action for Racial Equity effort. Spearheaded in large part by professional services giant PwC and its top executive Tim Ryan, the group is focused on advancing and advocating “public policies that will root out and end systemic racism.”

More generally, companies can help convene an overdue, all-stakeholders conversation about the future of jobs and the economy. Corporate leaders can use the recent crises as a catalyst for updating and improving the social contract. Along these lines, authors Thomas A. Kochan and Lee Dyer call for a renewed collective agreement in their 2020 book, Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract.

“What are the mutual expectations and obligations that workers, employers, and their communities and societies have regarding work and employment relationships?” they write.

I believe employees in particular need to have a stronger voice in the discussion. But it will take the collective effort of all the major stakeholder groups – employers, workers, consumers, investors, and public policy-makers – to create a better future; one in which multiple interests, goals, and expectations are realized.

Even if the work ahead on work is challenging, business leaders have little choice but to roll up their sleeves. A widespread rejection of the status quo is already under way. It’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation.” People aren’t walking away from work. But significant numbers are leaving their jobs as they reflect on what’s most important to them and assess if (and how well) their values align with their work and the organizations that employ them. They are seeking increased flexibility, more dignity, better pay, opportunities to grow, and greater happiness. In short, they are seeking “good jobs.”

To my relative, it’s a sign we need to replace capitalism.

To me, it’s a call to reform it. Perhaps we should rename this time “The Great Reassessment.” Let’s build a more inclusive economy where people are eager to apply to good jobs everywhere, and where organizations of all shapes and sizes are creating them.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.