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What is a good job?

Most people would say a good job is one that comes with a nice paycheck, reasonable hours, a healthy and safe work environment, and benefits such as social insurance. While this profile makes a lot of sense from an individual perspective, it does not necessarily tell policy-makers what the priorities should be for their national jobs strategies. Those priorities should be jobs that add the most social value – that contribute most to a country’s economic and social development. These “good jobs for development” may look like the jobs profiled above. But in some cases, a good job for the individual may not be good for the development of society. Think about some of the well-paying but redundant jobs in government or a protected sector, or in activities that contribute to environmental damage.

Defining a good job for development depends on the context of the country and the development challenges it faces. Take the case of societies with large youth bulges and high levels of youth unemployment. Tunisia and several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa fit this description. The price of this youth unemployment has obviously been high in both economic and social terms, and it is hard to imagine anything that would benefit these countries more than suitable jobs for these young people. These are certainly good jobs for development in this context.

Or think about poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, like Mozambique, where subsistence agriculture still dominates the economy, and poverty reduction is the number one challenge. Good jobs in such settings are those that enable farmers to access technology and markets that will increase their productivity and incomes. Or they may be non-farming jobs elsewhere on the value chain in agriculture, or low-skilled jobs in urban sectors that will trigger structural upgrading in the economy.

Good jobs that drive development look very different still in other contexts. For example, resource-rich economies can generate a lot of wealth but need to use this wealth wisely to achieve inclusive growth. Too few countries with abundant resources have been successful in doing this. But for Papua New Guinea, and many other resource-rich developing countries, investing some of the resource revenues in jobs in education and health would result in the creation of good jobs of a sort that would contribute to sustainable development.

A farmer at work by Neil Palmer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A farmer at work by Neil Palmer. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To take another example, small-island nations, such as St Lucia, need to overcome obstacles related to remoteness and scale, so jobs that strengthen connections with large offshore markets will have positive development spillovers. Other countries face specific challenges of very different natures, such as dealing with conflict, rapid urbanization, or population aging. Jobs that will contribute to development in these settings will look very different as a result.

But sometimes our conventional notion of a good job is appropriate, not only from an individual perspective but from a societal one as well. Mexico offers a good example. There, and in other emerging economies that face the challenges of formalization, people are seeking the voice, benefits, and social protection that describe the vast majority of jobs in advanced, high-income economies. The creation of jobs with these features will benefit those who hold them, but it will also have positive spillovers for society through the reduction of labor market and social policy dualism, and through the economic gains that will result from improved social risk management.

As we can see, good jobs can vary hugely depending on the country. But as these cases underline, this is only the first step in designing a jobs strategy that drives development. The next is to address the constraints that are getting in the way of the creation of enough good jobs for development, and then to alleviate these constraints through policy actions.

Economic growth is fundamental in almost any setting, and in some cases, the best job strategy is simply a growth strategy. But in other situations, the best job strategy may involve actions that move well beyond conventional approaches. To take the high youth unemployment example of Tunisia, the solution lies not with more growth or better education, but with governance reforms and more competitive product markets that open up opportunities for the young. Job strategies in agrarian societies like Mozambique should include sector policies in agriculture that raise productivity and basic education to prepare workers for jobs in other sectors. Job strategies in other contexts may involve the management of sovereign wealth funds, migration, social protection policies, urban policy, and gender policy, and so on.

In the end, jobs deserve to be more central in our thinking about economic and social development. It is through jobs that households improve their living standards, that workers and firms become more productive, and that people gain much of their identity. And it is through the creation of good jobs in a particular country context that important social and economic spillovers occur.

Featured image credit: Workbench by m0851. Public domain via Unsplash.

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