Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Graham S. Lowe
The Quality of Work: A People-Centred Agenda
Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2000. 181 pages + notes, index.
$CDN 21.95 paper (0-19-5414479-9)

Concerns about the quality of work are enjoying a resurgence across North America. To be sure, job quality has been a central theme in the North American literature about work since at least the 1960s. But from the mid-1970s well into the 1980s, with a pair of fierce recessions in Canada and the United States and a debt-triggered economic crisis in Mexico, unemployment eclipsed job quality as an issue. Today, with U.S. unemployment at its lowest in more than thirty years and Mexican unemployment lingering just above two percent, analysts in both countries have turned to questioning the quality of available jobs (Freeman 1994, Salas 2000, Tilly 1997). With this book, Graham Lowe adds a strong Canadian voice to the chorus.

Lowe advances three main propositions. First, it is important to define job quality along a wide range of dimensions. Second, many Canadian jobs are of poor quality, and there is evidence for a widening gap between good and bad jobs. Third, improving the quality of jobs is a win-win opportunity for employers and workers. He makes a strong case for the first two propositions, but falls short in demonstrating the third.

Economists (and quite a few others) have been wont to reduce job quality to a single, readily measurable criterion: the wage. Lowe, a sociologist, steers clear of this pitfall. While he takes wages and fringe benefits (and related issues, such as hours and job security) into account, his central focus is on work as a source of fulfillment, enjoyment, and empowerment. To what extent, he asks, are Canadians’ jobs interesting? Do their jobs make full use of their skills and give them opportunities to learn more? Do they have a say in important decisions on the job? Do their jobs make room for and support their lives outside work?

Lowe offers a fairly complete set of answers to these difficult-to-answer questions. He draws heavily on surveys of workers, including some he conducted himself, with colleagues. This analysis forms the most fascinating part of the book, a treasure trove of quantitative analyses of what one ordinarily thinks of as qualitative aspects of jobs. For instance, about one employed Canadian in four has literacy skills well in excess of what his or her job requires. More than two-thirds of the employed were computer literate in 1994, but only half used a computer at work. (And overqualified workers were less than half as likely as other workers to report satisfaction with their jobs.) Only 60 percent of Canadians rate their job positively in terms of fair pay, and that percentage drops to just over 50 percent for participation in decision-making, and 40 percent for opportunities for advancement. Perhaps most stunning, in 1996 40 percent of Canadians agreed with the statement, “I feel I have lost all control over my economic future.”

What to do? Lowe consciously targets the book to those in the best position to do something: managers, union officials, and government policy-makers (though the sheer volume of information presented may appeal more to a scholarly and classroom audience). Four of the book’s ten chapters are policy-oriented, two of those aimed specifically at the private policies implemented by managers. In these chapters and throughout the book, Lowe repeatedly asserts that improving jobs will lead to decreased turnover, greater loyalty and productivity, and hence better business performance. The evidence he adduces for this claim, however, is frustratingly limited.

Lowe himself voices this frustration. He laments the incomplete, mixed, and even contradictory evidence about causal links between job quality and firm performance. He documents that businesses’ rhetoric about valuing and empowering employees often does not match up with their actual practice. Even corporations that have made sincere efforts to expand workers’ decision-making power (Lowe cites Canadian examples such as Shell’s Sarnia plant and New Brunswick Telephone) often undermine these efforts by pursuing inconsistent strategies. Most cases examining the consequences of improving job quality involve large firms with substantial market power, and it is not clear how generalizable such findings are to smaller businesses. Moreover — and this is not a point Lowe addresses — there is an issue of fallacy of composition. If a few businesses offer better jobs than others, they should be able to attract, retain, and motivate better workers, as the efficiency wage literature has shown (Akerlof and Yellen 1986). But if all firms offer good jobs, any relative advantage in job quality disappears, and workers may simply raise their expectations rather than responding with greater effort and commitment.

Despite all these inherent limitations in the analysis, a number of things might have strengthened Lowe’s argument. First of all, the argument would be more convincing if he toned down the claims about the productivity and profit payoff to providing higher quality work, to correspond to the evidence presented. After all, pushing for better jobs is a legitimate choice for a society even if some businesses lose in the process. More detail on the positive case studies also would make the case more compelling. Finally, Lowe could have made good use of other literature, such as the research on worker participation reviewed by David Levine (1995), or the case studies of exemplary service businesses by Leonard Schlesinger and James Heskett (1991).

Even so, Lowe amply demonstrates the need for private and public policies to create more good jobs and improve the quality of existing jobs. His chapter directed toward the Canadian labour movement is particularly valuable. This book is meant to be used by those who are actively advocating for the quality of work — and it most definitely will be.


Akerlof, George and Janet Yellen, eds. 1986. Efficiency Wage Models of the Labor Market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freeman, Richard B., ed. 1994. Working Under Different Rules. New York: Russell Sage Foundation and National Bureau of Economic Research.

Levine, David. 1995. Reinventing the Workplace: How Business and Employees Can Both Win. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

Salas, Carlos. 2000. “Otra faceta de la dualidad económica: Trabajo y empleo precario en el México actual.” Trabajo, 2(3): 119-134.

Schlesinger, Leonard and James Heskett. 1991. “The service-driven company.” Harvard Business Review 69(5): 71-81.

Tilly, Chris. 1997. “Arresting the decline of good jobs in the U.S.A.?” Industrial Relations Journal, 28(4): 269-274.

Chris Tilly
Department of Regional Economic and Social Development
University of Massachusetts-Lowell
September 2000
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