“Bad jobs” – why do we enjoy them?

by Barbara Švagan, researcher and PhD student at the University of Primorska

5 min read

In 1962, American sociologist Everett Hughes introduced the concept of "dirty work". The term didn't only refer to work that's physically dirty, but also the work society deems immoral, such as prostitution, or work where workers occupy a subordinate role, such as janitors or servers. More than six decades have passed, but the stigma related to some professions persists. Research shows, however, that workers often find their "dirty jobs" meaningful and satisfying.

Why is this so?

A study focusing on cleaners showed that despite the dirty and dangerous nature of their job, almost three quarters of the workers were proud of their work and reported high levels of job satisfaction. The sense of pride stemmed from their feeling of increased strength and resilience when compared to people working less dirty jobs, but also from the feeling they were doing a service to the community. Consistent with a large strand of literature from this field, autonomy is another important factor which contributes to high job satisfaction levels. The cleaners' work did get assessed by the manager regularly, but they had full autonomy over the order of tasks they performed and how they performed them.

A similar conclusion was reached in our study on the paradox of high job quality evaluations among Slovenian workers on food delivery platforms, whose jobs are typically known for their precarious nature, suboptimal pay and limited social security for the workers. Couriers acknowledged the financial insecurity and health and safety risks associated with their job, but still reported being satisfied with it, primarily due to how much autonomy and freedom it offers, allowing them to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Sometimes, couriers evaluated their job quality as higher than in their past traditional jobs, especially if they had previously experienced micromanagement and workplace mobbing. Unsurprisingly, workers not entirely dependent on delivery work showed higher job satisfaction levels, as they were less affected by the often isolating nature of work and the unpredictability of earnings, since their main employment already secured these needs. Our findings are consistent with numerous studies from around the world - in a study from the USA, for example, platform delivery workers also reported high satisfaction with the autonomy and freedom the job offers. Another study emphasised that while some properties of a job can be "good" or "bad", using these terms to characterise platform jobs ignores how the workers' views on their job are influenced by their individual characteristics.

These findings are interesting because they challenge all traditional assumptions on how workers experience and evaluate their physically demanding, precarious or "dirty" jobs. These assumptions are not harmless - the prevalent public perception of these jobs as »bad« has an effect on how workers perceive themselves, their role in society and their self worth. In our study, for example, a third of the interview participants reported noticing patronising looks from other people, who would ocassionally tell them how sorry they feel about them "having to do this job", as if entering the job was not their choice. Another third reported feeling ashamed of their delivery job, largely due to societal expectations about the types of professions they should pursue given "their potential".

This shows how our prejudice, often detached from real world experience, has real world consequences, which is reason enough for us to attempt to change how we view "dirty" jobs. Doing so does not mean ignoring the challenges and difficulties these workers face, or glamorizing jobs which are often underpaid, dangerous or precarious, but simply recognizing the labour market isn't black and white, jobs aren't "good" or "bad" and that we don't need to label them as such to acknowledge their contribution to society.

About the Author

Barbara Švagan is a researcher and a PhD student at the University of Primorska. Her dissertation focuses on questions surrounding the quality of jobs created within the platform economy, with a focus on food delivery workers in Slovenia.

Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.

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