What can be done about job insecurity?



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Mark Griffin is Director of the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University. His research investigates new ways to support healthy and effective organisations. He is currently Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology. He is a Fellow of the US Society for Industrial/Organisational Psychology and past Chair of the research methods division of the US Academy of Management.

Following his appearance at State of the Nation, Director of the Curtin University Future of Work Institute, Professor Mark Griffin, addresses the problem of job insecurity and the ways we can create a sustainable and positive future for employment.

Secure and meaningful work underpins the financial and social health of our communities. However, automation and other changes to work are reducing security in some jobs and contributing to a wider sense of unease about future employment.

Overall, Australian employees feel reasonably secure in their jobs. Comprehensive HILDA data indicates around 80 per cent of employees have maintained positive levels of job security over past decades, with a small decline in job security over the years since the GFC for most in this group. However, the overall figures mask poor and declining job security for some employees. Technicians, machinery operators, clerical workers, and drivers comprise a group whose sense of security is falling quickly. In contrast, professional workers have maintained fairly stable levels of job security and sales workers have had increased feelings of security over recent years.

Feeling insecure for long periods is debilitating. Constantly worrying about future income erodes confidence and energy. Our research shows that prolonged insecurity also leads to poorer work performance and increasing levels of both financial and mental stress. Less obviously, but with serious implications, prolonged insecurity damages the individual traits that contribute to a productive and mature society.

At the Future of Work Institute, we draw on decades of research investigating why humans need purposeful work and how this work adds economic and social value to communities. Yet, in an age of uncertainty and change, secure work is unlikely to be achieved via a single job or employer.

Is it possible to feel secure in a world where work is changing? Yes, this goal is possible, but we need to look more closely at how human skills contribute to meaningful work. Here are three conditions that must be met if people are to feel more secure about work in the future.

First, future security will depend on access to learning and skill development throughout life.  Lifelong learning is becoming a prerequisite for ongoing employability. New learning paths are needed that go beyond current education models and make much better use of learning through work itself.

Second, people need to trust that skills they develop will be useful. This trust can grow only if educational institutions, governments, and business strive in common to understand how people create value through work.  We must ask how working in a job builds skills of the future as well as meeting the demands of today.

Third, people need confidence that the economic and policy environment will generate meaningful work opportunities. Global uncertainty is high and will likely remain so. This uncertainty might seem a reason to expect ever decreasing employment security. That reasoning is misplaced. Security derives from the confidence to participate in new opportunities and creating these opportunities must be a national priority.  

In summary, people will feel secure about their employment future when they have access to continuous learning, trust that their skills will be useful, and have confidence new work opportunities will be created. Mixed messages are often received about each of these requirements. Industry, regulators, unions, and educators convey varied and sometimes contradictory pictures of what work can be. Anxiety about the future is understandable. A concerted effort is needed to create a vision for the future of work that more clearly values people and their contribution.

Finally, we should learn from history. The industrial revolution certainly created new opportunities for work. But not all secure jobs were meaningful, and many work processes were dehumanising. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.


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