Is Britain such a bad place to work? The level and dispersion of job quality in comparative European perspective


This paper questions the view that jobs in Britain are on average of low quality relative to those in comparator nations in Europe. Using the European Labour Force Survey and a new comparative survey by the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, I investigate four core dimensions of job quality: monthly earnings, the prospects of a job (security and promotion prospects), intrinsic job quality (skills, social relationships, environmental factors, work intensity) and working time quality. I find that:

• On the down side, British workplaces are exceptional in that monthly earnings are much more unequal than elsewhere in Europe.
• Yet, in terms of the three other core dimensions of job quality Britain’s jobs are not unduly unequal, unless one chooses to compare with a Nordic country.
• Moreover, on average Britain has quite high job quality in all four dimensions, consistent with, though not necessarily caused by, its comparative affluence.

The much cited proposition that “Britons work the longest hours in Europe” is a myth. When all workers are properly included, Britain’s average work week in 2011 ranked 23rd out of 27 EU countries. The kernel of truth behind the proposition is that male full-time employees worked the longest hours. Even so, a relatively high proportion of jobs in Britain offer employees flexibility in their work hours.

This comparative picture supports a policy priority focussed on actions to reduce wage inequality. Nevertheless the findings need not encourage complacency from policy-developers in respect of other aspects of job quality, which may be under threat in an era of economic stagnation.