Job quality can suffer even during employment growth in Europe

Employment in the EU increased by 7.9% from 2000 to 2008 (the period before the economic crisis). The walqing research project, however, has found that the quality of these new jobs was split almost 50:50 between those classified as lower quality and those classified as higher quality jobs. Therefore, employment growth does not automatically improve job quality. Active policy intervention is necessary to support better job quality through policy measures such as a minimum wage, standard setting, health and safety regulations, and regulating the informal part of a sector.

The Europe 2020 agenda sets the ambitious goal of an employment rate of 75% by the year 2020 for the population aged 20 – 64. According to the European Labour Force Survey (ELFS), the number of jobs in the EU rose from 209.874 million in 2000 to 226.552 million in 2008; an increase of 7.9%. During this time the proportion of service sector jobs increased from 65.9% to 70.45%, while jobs in agriculture declined from 7.3% to 5.6% and industrial sectors employment declined from 26.8% to 24%.

The walqing project has come up with new ways of understanding the consequences of the job creation process, enabling policy makers to find out which sectors are likely to grow, and where problematic working conditions are likely to develop. The researchers believe that although the economic crisis makes it harder to discern long-term job trends, the quality of employment growth is not purely market, and technology, driven but is amenable to policy initiatives.

walqing has now completed its first phases, which have created two new policy-relevant indexes:

  • The BART Index (balanced absolute and relative trend index) on employment growth in various countries, which is innovative, since previous measures produced either a relative trend index (e.g. expressed in percentages) or an absolute trend index (expressed in numbers such as hours, workers or production output). Relying on either relative or absolute trends may lead observers to over-, or underestimate structural changes, and policy makers to misdirect interventions and investments in regional development or qualification. By balancing the trends, the BART index is able to avoid trends in large countries over-shadowing those in smaller countries.
  • A Job Quality Index aggregating data on all aspects of job quality (work organisation, wages, security and flexibility, skills and development, engagement and representation), and weighting them according to their contribution to three aspects of employee well-being: physical well-being, psychological well-being and job satisfaction.

In creating these indexes, walqing provides a new way of utilising existing European level data, such as the ELFS and the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS). Using these indices means that trends in larger countries do not obscure interesting developments in smaller countries, and allow for ‘zooming in’ on national particularities in growing sectors.

Findings from the initial phase of research:

  • Of the new jobs created during the period under review, 8.19 million were characterised as high quality jobs and 8.48 million were low quality.
  • Jobs are categorised as belonging to one of six job quality types – ‘active’, ‘saturated’, ‘team-based’, ‘passive-independent’, ‘high-strain’ and ‘insecure’ jobs. Typical examples of these groups would be: research scientist, senior manager, software engineer, night security guard, manufacturing operator, and temporary office worker.
  • The job type with highest job quality is the active job type, and the job with the least favourable outcomes is the high-strain job type.
  • Women are at greater risk of working in low quality passive-independent and insecure jobs, working in low quality growing sectors, and having difficulties in progressing in, or re-entering, high quality growing sectors.
  • The shift in employment to the service sector has only resulted in 895,900 extra high quality jobs during the period under review, a small proportion of the overall number of high quality jobs (100.428 million), which suggests that the shift to the service sector cannot be relied upon to increase the proportion of high quality jobs.
  • Growing sectors of the EU economy with higher than average levels of job quality include real estate, education and health, public administration and financial intermediation.
  • Lower than average job quality is found in construction, retail, and the hotel and restaurant sector. These sectors are strongly segmented by gender and have gender-specific profiles of problematic job quality.
  • Growing sectors with poor working conditions have aspects in common – they are labour intensive jobs in sectors increasingly shaped by outsourcing and cost-based competition, attending to basic societal needs such as food, care, shelter, or cleanliness, often with physically hard working conditions and a requirement to work in a mobile setting, for example on the road or at a client’s site.
  • In some countries, social partners as well as NGOs have come up with good practices and solutions to address issues, such as precarious work, working hours and social inclusion of vulnerable groups, but these are not extended across comparable sectors or countries.

Interim policy recommendations:

  • Policy makers should pay attention to growth sectors outside the knowledge-intensive cores of the economy, to limit tendencies to poor job quality and support innovation through regulation, social dialogue and mutual learning.
  • Policies should be geared towards the promotion of high quality jobs, especially active and team-based jobs.
  • Remedies for improving low quality jobs depend on the job type, for example high-strain jobs would need increased job resources and autonomy, while passive jobs would need increased resources and more demands.
  • Low quality sectors have gender-specific profiles of problematic working conditions, and also frequently hire migrants, ethnic minorities or other vulnerable groups, such as young or older workers. Policies are needed to address both issues of inequality and social inclusion.

Evidence from the first phases of the project has been used to select subsectors, such as ‘green’ construction, consumer waste removal, office cleaning, catering and mobile elderly care, which are likely to expand further and present particular challenges for job quality. In these sectors, walqing has investigated social partnership structures and practices in a range of partner countries.

walqing is currently conducting detailed case study analyses of companies, taking note of best practices improving job quality and productivity. The project is also investigating individual employees’ trajectories of work and concerns of work and life quality, issues of representation of vulnerable groups, and possibilities of action research interventions in selected workplaces.

Further results of the second phase of walqing will be disseminated online as they are produced during 2012, as well as at the project’s final conference to be held in Vienna on 19-20 September 2012.

walqing - Work and life quality in new and growing jobs (duration: 1/12/2009 - 30/11/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.2 “Societal trends and lifestyles”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Ursula Holtgrewe,