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Quality of work – concept and measurement
Svenn-Åge Dahl, Torstein Nesheim and Karen M. Olsen
SNF - Institute for Research in Economics and Business Administration
Companies on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in Europe, started with experiments and policies for improving the quality of working life in the 1960s (for discussion/overview see e.g. Gallie, 2003; Martel and Dupuis, 2006). The most systematic work for improving the quality of work took place in Sweden, and it gained momentum in the 1970s through acts such as the Co-Determination Act (1976) and the Work Environment Act (1978) and other important initiatives like for example the Working Life Fund (AFL) in 1990. All this inspired the other Scandinavian countries to introduce similar legislation, and it is therefore no surprise that employees in the Scandinavian countries is found to have higher quality of work tasks and better opportunities for participation than employees in other European Union countries (Gallie, 2003).
On the other hand the main policy objective in the European Union during the 1980s and most of the 1990s was to create jobs and reduce unemployment, and the focus was less on job quality. Increasing the employment rate per se was seen as the key to social inclusion. However, at the meeting of the European Commission in Lisbon in the spring of 2000 improving job quality became an explicit objective as part of EU’s aim to become the most advanced economy in the world by 2010. Both the ILO and the OECD have taken up similar themes. Concern with job quality was said to be at the heart of both the European Social Model and the European Employment Strategy. The idea was that what was needed was not only more jobs, but better jobs.1 The logic is that improved employment rates and quality of work can promote financial self-sufficiency and diminish the pressure on the welfare state. High quality of employment can also boost competitiveness, to the extent that it promotes motivation, productivity and commitment. Effective policies for social integration must take into account not simply the quantity of jobs, but also of the importance of providing jobs that give people the opportunity to extend their skills and to move into better jobs (Gallie, 2003).
The current understanding of both objective and subjective quality of employment is far from being clear and broadly shared. In this paper we will discuss the concept of job quality. First we give a short description of some theoretical approaches to quality of work, then we argue that quality of work is a multidimensional phenomenon, and describe six central dimensions. Before the conclusion we have some comments on data and sampling.
The concept of job quality
The concept of job quality has a long history in the social sciences dating back to the 18th and 19th century, and several well known and leading theorists have been preoccupied with quality of work. According to Marx (1967) employers’ ownership and control of the means of production meant that almost all jobs are bad. He argues that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions the workers would become alienated because they loose control over the nature of the work tasks, and over the products of their labour (Giddens, 1997). Neo-Marxist’s like Braverman (1974) also had a pessimistic view of the development of job quality. He was concerned with the extent to which developments in work organization, such as closer control of the labour process by the management, destroyed the capacity for individual self-development through the simplification of tasks and the separation of conception and execution in work. Beck (1992) with his destandardization of labour thesis argued that new forms of work would imply a decline in job quality. Under the standardized mass-production factory regime the trade unions managed to create standards for