Good Jobs and Bad Jobs in History

Benjamin Schneider, Oslo Metropolitan University

This paper argues that the quality of employment—whether workers are employed in “good jobs”—is an important aspect of wellbeing, and it constructs an index to measure historical occupational quality. The paper begins by explaining why work quality should be included as a measure of living standards. It then describes the literature on contemporary job quality and uses historical workers’ perspectives about the aspects of jobs they valued to derive components of job quality in the past. It outlines the computation of a Historical Occupational Quality Index and suggests sources that enable researchers to analyze job quality in the past. The second half of the paper applies the index to the introduction of mechanized spinning in Britain during the late 18th century, combining data on hand spinning wages from Humphries & Schneider (2020), a new dataset of more than 5000 observations of wages and working time in the early factory system collected from manuscript sources, and extensive qualitative evidence. The job quality approach shows that most spinning jobs changed from low-pay, high-control, low-risk work to higher-paid but low-control and more dangerous occupations. The gender composition of the workforce changed alongside the organization of work, which produced a crucial example of gender-biased technical change.

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 Presented in Session 67. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs