Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lean work and a narrowing path to ‘good jobs’

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Work regimes are increasingly demanding. But ‘leaner’ does not mean ‘fitter’ for workers.

Good jobs are characterised by learning, autonomy and collaboration—but not many workers have that experience (Gorodenkoff/shutterstock.com)

The ‘gig’ worker delivering food by bicycle, the Amazon warehouse worker picking shelves at speed, the financial accountant staying late all week to meet a deadline—all are iconic images of the contemporary workplace. While they may appear recent arrivals on the job market, they are aspects of decades-long trends which have reshaped work and generated new ways of working.

A new world of work has emerged, which offers the promise of learning, autonomy and collaboration in the work process but also generates more pressure, new demands for flexibility and new risks and insecurities. We have identified four major types of ‘workplace regime’, or distinctive ways of organising work, based on quinquennial instalments of the Eurofound European Working Conditions Survey, from 1995 to 2015, across 14 western-European countries.

Leaner working

‘Learning’ systems of work combine learning with autonomy, while ‘lean’ production systems are also strong on learning but with less autonomy and tighter managerial control. Two other systems are very low on learning: ‘simple’ systems provide some level of autonomy, while ‘Taylorist’ systems (named after the infamous progenitor of the assembly line, Frederick Taylor) are characterised by very tight control and high pressure.

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For the first three systems, we find highly controlled (‘pressure’) and highly flexible (‘extreme’) variants. The fastest growing work regimes are lean-extreme, lean, lean-pressure and learn-pressure. In short, lean production is coming to dominate the workplace—with its combination of worker participation and learning, tight managerial control and high pressure within the work process.

Recognising the pressure and extreme versions of workplace regimes offers a fuller picture of the growth of ‘lean-type’ work. Worker learning and autonomy have become more important in recent decades but that comes with a sting in the tail: these qualities are increasingly exercised under serious pressure, in lean or similar regimes.


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Four ‘Is’

These trends in ways of working can be related to four ‘Is’ of workplace outcomes: intensification of the work process, intrusion of work into non-work time and space, insecurity of employment and income deficit or insecurity. Some regimes combine quite high levels of all these undesirable outcomes, while others offer difficult trade-offs between security and intensity. Only the learn regime provides protection against pressure and precarity, and even then with pockets of insecurity of employment (especially for women in public and social services).

The fastest growing regimes are those that generate pressure or precarity—sometimes both—for workers. This is happening directly through lean regimes and via related regimes such as learn-pressure. Indeed, while skills may appear to provide a buffer against these pressures, it is when flexibility and control are combined with learning and some degree of autonomy that intrusion and intensification appear to be at their highest.

The contemporary workplace cannot be understood as a simple march towards a single destination for all. Many new pressures are appearing for workers, emerging through different work regimes. Some tend to bring more pressure or precarity, or both, especially the fastest growing.

There is thus no one path to a ‘bad job’ today: there are significant challenges, whatever path is followed. Overall, however, while there are various trends in workplace regimes, there is a narrowing path to a ‘good job’—rewarding, interesting work in the context of steady, ‘standard’ employment with tolerable intensity and intrusion.

Political contestation

Returning to our initial examples, we can see that some of the major concerns about contemporary work are rooted in features of workplace regimes. The platform work of the ‘gig’ economy may be mediated by technology but is rooted in the simple regime of low complexity, combined with indirect control often exercised through the discipline of the labour market. Pressures on warehouse workers are closely linked to the rise of lean regimes. Even among the most fortunate workers, the flexible excesses of professional and managerial work are rooted in the growth of lean-extreme and learn-extreme versions.

The new world of work is looking increasingly lean but elements of ‘good work’ can be rescued. Learning and autonomy are increasingly widespread. Increased engagement with customers and colleagues, working to a higher quality and flexible schedules have great potential to humanise work, albeit also potential sources of pressure and precarity.

A wide range of workplace regimes thus remain and are open to political contestation—some European countries have sidelined the worst, while others have presided over their growth. Governments can address these workplace trends by changing the mix of regimes in their societies, moderating their impacts. Most fundamentally, they can reorganise these regimes to emphasise learning, autonomy and collaboration—but under conditions of reduced pressure, with managed intensity and intrusion.


Amy Erbe Healy is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Limerick. Her recent research includes work on precarity and decent work across western Europe, human trafficking on the island of Ireland and food poverty in the Republic of Ireland.

Seán Ó Riain is professor of sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He studies workplace regimes, national development strategies and the politics of inequality. He is co-editor of The Changing Worlds and Workplaces of Capitalism.

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