Social Values, Employment and Human Development: beyond economic utilitarianism

20 May 2014
By Andrew Fischer
Apple by Michal Jarmoluk

After years of neglect, the theme of employment has returned to the forefront of the international development agenda, following on the heels of the global financial crisis and its aftermath. Prominent examples include recent reports by UNCTAD, UNRISD, the World Bank, in addition to the extensive work by the International Labour Organization. The social value of employment has been recognised within this revived attention, bringing the theme close to the heart of the human development approach.

However, there is a danger of reducing the ‘social’ into a utilitarian framework. For instance, the 2013 World Development Report treats the ‘social value’ of jobs as the individual value of a job (presumably the wage) plus its various spillover effects, which can be negative, such as environmental costs, or positive, such as social identity, sense of fairness, or gender equality. This idea of spillovers comes from modern welfare economics – an influence that leading thinkers of the human development approach have tried to critique and overcome since the origins of the approach.

Instead, the idea of ‘social value’ arguably needs to be anchored in a more nuanced sociological understanding, such as the social nature of basic needs. Like happiness, but unlike objective human development metrics, social values are inherently relative and subjective, such as the sense of security and dignity that people derive from work. These perceptions can adapt over time and to changing contexts. The perception of certain types of work as enhancing dignity in a rural agrarian context, for instance, might not persist through the course of urbanization. Structural and institutional transformations associated with development add even further complexities, particularly in a globalised setting where perceptions are conditioned by factors that extend far beyond the local.

Unemployment is a good example of these complexities. There is a consensus that unemployment must be generally avoided not only because it is detrimental to incomes and demand, but also to dignity and social cohesion. However, many policies that address unemployment have been controversial because, for example, they can often result in detrimental effects on peoples’ dignity or social status by forcing them to accept substandard employment mismatched with their skill sets, or else by being used to discipline welfare recipients. On the other hand, sufficient social security can allow the unemployed to avoid situations where they are forced to accept any work at any wage. If affordable and accessible schooling options are also available for mature students, spells of unemployment might encourage reskilling and result in increased social mobility, esteem and income. Under such circumstances, the ability to be unemployed could become a source of dignity and advantage. In most developing countries that lack generalized social security, unemployment is generally a status that only relatively well-off people can afford.

The relationships between social and economic values are hugely debated on empirical, theoretical, ideological and even epistemological grounds. The utilitarian argument that the social value of employment is more or less imputed by its monetary market value is particularly problematic in a world in which people are compelled to work and are not necessarily free to withdraw from a hypothesized labour market bargain, whether their compulsion is driven by absolute poverty or else by more nuanced social needs. The lack of freedom to be excluded in this sense can lead to exploitation.

We might also question whether the processes that drive modern economic growth reinforce the social values of employment. The classical Marxist answer is that capitalist processes are fundamentally alienating for labour; the class conflict that follows is what makes capitalism so dynamic, rather than a harmony between social and economic values. As pointed out by Giovanni Arrighi, even Adam Smith viewed the division of labour within production units and the specialization of work into monotonous and uniform tasks as harmful to the moral and intellectual qualities of the labour force. This tension between productivity and social value can be observed today within increasingly complex and atomized factory systems of production and distribution, such as in the ‘Walmartization’ of retail stores across the globe.

Bearing these complexities in mind, it is nonetheless useful to focus on the conditions that might allow for sufficient and sustained social values of employment within development. Redistribution is a hugely important condition given its role in socializing the wealth produced by increasing productivity in order to support forms of employment that would be deemed socially valuable and that would reinforce other human development gains, such as in education. In the absence of such socialisation, the perpetual quest for increasing worker productivity might well exacerbate certain structural aspects of vulnerability, thereby undermining the social valuation of objective (or absolute) gains made in human and economic development.

Dr. Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Development Studies and convener of the master of arts major in social policy for development at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, part of Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

This blog post was drawn from the Human Development Report Office 2014 Occasional Paper entitled: The Social Value of Employment and the Redistributive Imperative for Development.

Photo by Michal Jarmoluk