Complex, problem-solving jobs – or the reverse?

Below is a rather depressing table.  I’ve taken it from a piece by Michael Handel in  the recent ippr publication Technology, globalisation and the future of work in Europe, which draws on data from the European Working Conditions Survey.

First, it suggests that the quality of work in the UK dropped significantly over the decade to 2005, absolutely and relative to other EU countries.  We started well above the EU average on both complex tasks and problem-solving at work, but 10 years later we had dropped significantly on both these scores, so that we were below average on the former and only just above on the latter.   This is not a healthy direction of travel: towards more simplified (i.e. routine) work.

Secondly, we share with most other countries a drop in the proportion of working people who say they are learning new things at work.  Our decline is sharper than almost all the others, from a proud 82% in 1995 (bettered only by the inevitable Scandinavians) to 71% in 2005.   In a sense this fits with the first point: less complex work requires less learning.  But it’s not encouraging.

Obviously the figures are quite dated.  Information for 2015 will be available in due course, and they will make interesting reading.   Handel seems to think that they are not likely to show a change of direction.  We know from other studies that  the UK’s performance on learning at work is not improving.

I’m asking for the gender breakdown so we can see how this bears on the Paula Principle.  I  know that there is other analysis, notably  from Francis Green, which gives a more optimistic view on the quality of UK working life generally, and which suggests that women  report having a higher quality than men, in spite of the pay gap.  In any event,  this kind of information is important as the focus of employment debate may be shifting from the absolute volume of jobs to the quality of the work that is offered.

It seems very likely that all this is closely linked to our productivity puzzle.  Matching people’s skills better to the work they do is surely an essential part of this, especially in human services, where women predominate and which are less dependent on technology for their productivity.  Take the care sector:  it is, to a large extent, a matter of choice whether jobs are designed/defined as complex and problem-solving (and rewarded as such);  or are routinised and low-paid.  Who decides which path to take?


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