Post Covid quest for better work

June 8, 2020

On Thursday 28 May, Kellogg College’s Dr Ruth Yeoman was a panellist for Rebuilding Macroeconomics 6th Exit Strategy Workshop on “Post Covid Jobs and the Quest for Better Work”. Co-hosted by Rebuilding Macroeconomics Director Professor Angus Armstrong and Henrietta Moore, Director of the Institute of Global Prosperity.

Covid-19 and our fracturing social contract

Rebuilding Macroeconomics asked: “How should we reform our economies and bring people back to better work, aligned with major social, political and economic challenges, notably climate change?” Dr Yeoman argued that the post Covid-19 economy must mend our fracturing social contract by addressing the obligations we have towards workers in the caring and provisioning economy who have put themselves in harm’s way for our sake. In his classic treatment of the social contract, John Rawls (1971) makes fairness the core of justice in social cooperation. Covid-19 shows us we need to extend values in production beyond fairness to include care and flourishing. We must also ensure workers have voice in decision-making. Going forward, economics with a public purpose must consider how all those involved in production, whether paid or unpaid, can thrive.

Covid-19 has given us an acute and painful awareness of how caring and provisioning work is fundamental to our way of life.  We have learnt that making care work invisible has serious, indeed fatal, consequences. It has also alerted us to the work of systems organising needed to protect us against future shocks. One way to repair the social contract would be to base the relationship between citizens and the state on contributive justice. Workers who put themselves at risk – beyond the expectations of their employment contract – would be entitled to have a say in the decisions that shape their work. And citizens would be able to claim their interests in their contributions being in the form of good, decent or meaningful work.

Bringing forward an economics of meaningfulness

A social contract rooted in contributive justice would demand that the contributions workers make to social cooperation are worthy of their efforts, provide them with goods such as autonomy and dignity, and be emotionally engaging. Citizens would be entitled to forms of organizational belonging that develop their capabilities and provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Dr Yeoman argued that ‘contributive justice’ is tied to an economics of meaningfulness, and that economists should take greater account of our need for meaning as a motivational drive. In a 2004 paper on the ‘economics of meaning’, Karlsson and colleagues propose elements of meaning that could be incorporated into economic models. Nikolova and Cnossen (2020) show that meaningful work is an important consideration for labour economics. For example, the German DGB Gute-Arbeit (running since 2005) incorporates subjective dimensions of meaningful work, asking workers ‘do you feel you make an important contribution to society (or your company) through your work?’

A public policy ecosystem to reform our economies and create better work

How, then, should we reform our economies? If we want an organisation of work that helps us repair the relationship between citizens and the state, then we need to prioritise the quality of work, including both civic principles and institutional support in work design.  We will need to develop the associational life of the social and productive economy. For example, Paul Hirst’s (1994) associative democracy – where society is orchestrated by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations – could be adapted to our present needs.

Dr Yeoman proposed a public policy ecosystem for a repaired social contract that will deliver better work. Covid-19 teaches us that work is not just employment. It also teaches us that people want to do meaningful work in purposeful organisations. Before the pandemic, universal basic income trials were being proposed to address automation. Finland’s recent UBI experiment, for example, showed strong well-being benefits but only a small employment impact. A UBI on its own is not enough. Rather, we need a public policy ecosystem that targets holistic, values-grounded work design, and includes: a good work index, entitlements to capability development, a framework for deliberative and representative voice, and a diversity of ownership forms within an associative economic democracy.  Finally, Dr Yeoman proposed that we should not wait for the government to do this policy work, but rather set up experiments at other levels of society. For example, voluntary corporate codes, covenants for sectors and supply chains, and city constitutions.

Hirst, P. (1994). Associative Democracy. Polity Press.

Karlsson, N., Loewenstein, G., & McCafferty, J. (2004). The Economics of Meaning. Nordic Journal of Political Economy, 30: 61–75.

Yeoman, R. (2020). Ethics, Meaningfulness, and Mutuality. Routledge Studies in Business Ethics.

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Other panellists included Professor Stephen Machin, Director of Centre of Economic Performance at LSE, Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe institute at KCL, Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy, KCL, Dr Geoff Tily, Senior Economist at TUC, and Laura Gardiner, Research Director at the Resolution Foundation.