What Sort of Jobs Do We Want?

Back in the day (December 2006, as it happens) I wrote a piece for the Town & Country Planning Association Journal with the title: "Healthy, Wealthy & Wise?" It comprised, mainly, a critique of the then-new 'Further Alterations to the London Plan'. Those Further Alterations set out a predictable mix of ambitions for London, including loads of economic growth, loads of jobs, loads of health and happiness, endless joyous children running in the streets and so forth.

Unconvinced, I tried to demonstrate that some of these ambitions may at odds with one another; in particular, I suggested that, given the kinds of jobs foreseen for the capital, the London Plan was actually forecasting an increase in sickness - the very opposite of the 'health' it claimed was its goal.

Following what in retrospect seem a rather turgid few paragraphs, I wrote:

"Another way of considering the question ‘what sort of jobs do we really want?’ is to consider the impact of the jobs we already have. It is well known, for example, that the happiness and well-being of people with jobs is incomparably superior to those without. Material well-being is obvious; but people in work are also physically and mentally healthier than the unemployed. (It is exceptionally important to note that the definitions here are somewhat discriminatory – it is better to think of ‘usefully busy’ rather than ‘employed’ as the determinant of health.)

However, what is less well appreciated is that having a job can make you ill, and different kinds of job are more or less likely to make you ill. Fascinating but under-publicised research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) throws powerful light on this issue. The HSE has been appending
questions to the annual Labour Force Survey for several years, asking respondents – to one of the largest, most authoritative and reliable surveys of labour markets in Britain – whether their job has caused them to become ill during the previous year, or whether their job has caused an existing
illness to become worse.

The latest figures show that around 145,000 Londoners were made ill by their jobs during 2004. The main illnesses are those related to stress. In effect, 145,000 Londoners with jobs are being made miserable by those jobs. 

Ironically, people working in health and social work occupations are most likely to have their well-being negatively affected by their job.

Brook Lyndhurst has estimated how this may continue into the future. Taking the employment projections in the Further Alterations to the London Plan, and using recent projections of the occupational structure of this employment (driven by the rise in financial and business services, and by the growth in retail and public sector jobs to accommodate the predicted increase in population), we estimate that by 2016 160,000 Londoners will be made sick each year by their job, and by 2026 this will have risen to more than 170,000 per year.

How does this sit with the Mayor’s commitment to ‘promote policies to address health inequalities and the determinants of health in London and improve the health of Londoners’? If the health of Londoners is really the priority, then perhaps we should be concentrating on the idea of the ‘good job’ rather than simply the number of jobs. Perhaps we should be focusing on quality, not quantity.

Again, objections that this is Utopian or – even worse – likely to harm London’s economy are almost inevitable. But consider the reduction in the number of working days lost. Consider the savings to the public purse of reduced treatment costs. Consider the potential impacts on ‘well-being’ – in its broadest sense – if more of us enjoyed our jobs, if ‘work-life balance’ was real rather than rhetorical.

Imagine, then, a London Plan that had, at its centre, not a machismo commitment to passive growth, but a deeper commitment to active improvement of the working lives of Londoners. A London Plan that did not simply commit to building more offices, but which set the parameters of the commercial ‘licence to operate’, that reached out to businesses to help them not just with childcare provision, but a whole range of adaptations to deliver well-being for Londoners. A London Plan that prioritised good jobs, suitable jobs, worthwhile jobs. A London Plan that did not simply lie down in front of untrammelled capitalism, but which confidently said: London expects.

The Mayor’s Draft Further Alterations to the London Plan are already in many ways impressive. The transition from land use planning to spatial planning requires considerable ambition and innovation, and the Further Alterations have both of these. The status given to climate change is progressive and far-reaching.

Sustainability is broader than this, however, and I have tried to argue that a deeper problem remains embedded in the Plan, the consequences of which will take the form of perpetual marginalisation for many Londoners, and persistent misery for many others. If, as we are encouraged to do by the latest
Plan, we are looking to the further horizon of 2026, then it behoves us to raise our sights in many ways. The tools and mechanisms to achieve these kinds of ends have yet fully to be developed. But a spatial plan that looks forward to 2026 should surely be at least considering such possibilities; and if the Mayor’s obligation to address health and health inequalities is to be taken seriously, then it may be that such considerations are imperative.

We should be looking to a 2026 in which there are not merely more Londoners than there are today, but a 2026 in which Londoners are happier and healthier than we are today."

Replace 'London Plan' with 'Industrial Strategy' or, indeed, 'economic policy' more generally, and the gist still, methinks, applies.  I very much hope that the RSA's new initiative on 'good work' has more success than I did.

[If there's a photo down here it was added August 2017 as part of blog refresh.  Photo is either mine or is linked to where I found it. Make of either what you will.]


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