An Interview With Arne Kalleberg

Author of the RSF book Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Arne KallebergArne Kalleberg, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2011. A former Visiting Scholar, Kalleberg provides an insightful analysis of how and why precarious employment is gaining ground in the labor market and the role these developments have played in the decline of the middle class. He previously co-edited Fighting for Time, which examined the social construction of time and its importance in American culture.

Q: In your book’s first chapter, you note that an "enormous literature written by social scientists" already exists about changes in work and job quality in the United States, but but you say this research has been 'piecemeal' and segmented by discipline. Could you elaborate on the different ways an economist and, say, a sociologist would study this topic? What are the separate questions being studied, and how does your book aim to achieve a comprehensive understanding?  

Kalleberg: Economists evaluate the quality of jobs primarily in terms of their economic compensation, which consists mainly of wages and fringe benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. So, economists generally regard good jobs as those that provide relatively high wages and benefits. This is closely tied to the idea of skill, as economists assume that people with more skills are generally more productive and thus able to obtain better paying jobs.

Sociologists, on the other hand, emphasize institutional and cultural factors that influence job quality, such as how work is organized and controlled, in addition to economic compensation. For sociologists, a good job is not only one that pays well, but one that also provides workers with some control and autonomy over their work tasks and flexibility over their work schedules. Sociologists also emphasize occupational differences in prestige or status; these differences are associated with inequality in power and control as well as earnings.

Related Resources

The explanations advanced by economists, sociologists (and psychologists) are all important, but incomplete. In this book, I adopt an integrated perspective on job quality that combines insights from economics and psychology as well as from the sociological study of social stratification, organizations, occupations, industries and work to describe how variations in macro-level institutional, organizational and cultural contexts of work have generated differences in jobs and workers’ responses to them in the United States during the latter part of the twentieth century.

Q: You argue that there has been an increasing polarization in job quality since the mid-1970s. A major part of this trend comes from the growth in low-wage, poor-quality jobs, particularly service jobs in health care, hotels, retail and child care. Is this job sector expected to grow in the coming years, and is it inevitable that it remains largely a low-wage one?

Kalleberg: These personal services jobs are expected to grow in the future, but it is not inevitable that these remain low-wage jobs. How we remunerate these kinds of personal service jobs is a social choice; personal and other services can be delivered at many different levels of quality. If we as a society want higher quality services, then we will need to upgrade these jobs and hire workers with greater skills to do them. Personal service jobs tend to be low-skilled in the United States because we have defined them that way, paying them low wages and recruiting people with relatively few qualifications to do them. If we insisted on higher standards of quality for, say, personal service jobs such as people taking care of our children or our elderly, then we could require those jobs to be more highly skilled and pay them more. Other countries have upgraded the quality of these kinds of personal service jobs by putting them in the public sector (as in Sweden, for example) and supporting them publicly though taxation. Since many of these personal service jobs are paid by public funds in one way or another, their levels of compensation are ultimately social and political decisions, requiring only the will to upgrade them.

Table 6.1, taken from p. 119 of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Q: Lately, a number of experts and pundits have questioned the value of a college degree, especially in light of rising student debt. How important has the role of education and skill-acquisition been in the polarization of jobs? What is the state of the 'college premium'?

Kalleberg: Education has been important in increasing job polarization. The expansion of education helped make it the “great divider” among people in general and members of the labor force specifically in the latter part of the twentieth century in America. Workers with higher levels of education are generally more likely to have good jobs—especially higher paying jobs—and there are growing gaps in earnings and other aspects of job quality between people with different amounts of education. Demographic groups (such as those defined by race and ethnicity, and immigrant status) are also likely to differ in their levels of education and skills, and this helps to explain inequalities among these groups in the quality of their jobs.

In recent years, the growth in the earnings premium for college relative to high school graduates has slowed. Combined with the explosive growth in the costs of attending college, this has led some to question the value of a college education. Nevertheless, while graduating from college does not guarantee that one will obtain a good job in the current economic environment, not attending college is very likely to mean being placed in a bad job.

Q: Your final two chapters elaborate what you call a ‘new social compact’ with the American worker. You introduce the term flexicurity, a European import. What is flexicurity and can it be translated for American politics?

Kalleberg:The United States needs a new social contract among the government, business and workers in order to address the consequences of polarized and precarious employment systems. The notion of flexicurity has attracted a great deal of attention among European labor market reformers looking for a way to give employers and labor markets greater flexibility and still provide protections for workers from the insecurity that results from this flexibility. Flexicurity is a “meta-policy” or policy strategy (rather than a specific policy) that has been used to refer to a variety of policies that have been bundled together in different ways in different countries. It requires coordination of employment and social policies that generally socialize risks and help people deal with uncertainty.

Flexicurity takes different forms in different countries. Employers in the United States already have a great deal of flexibility due to the prevalence of “employment at will” and the general lack of labor market regulations. Thus, a “flexicurity with an American face” requires primarily the adoption of various forms of security for workers. First, it calls for greater economic security or a safety net for workers. Elements of this safety net include more generous unemployment assistance that give workers a “soft landing” if they lose their jobs as well as health insurance that is provided to all citizens regardless of employment status (as is the case in most developed countries of the world). Second, an American version of flexicurity should also emphasize active labor market policies that provide workers with greater opportunities for lifelong learning and employability in growing industries and occupations. This re-employment assistance includes opportunities for retraining, job counseling, and help in finding new jobs, thereby giving workers more security as they move from one job to another.

Q:You argue that job creation policy of late has focused more on increasing GDP and improving productivity than increasing the number of good jobs. How exactly has the relationship between those two factors – productivity and good job growth – changed in the last 40 years? And what should the government do instead?

Kalleberg: During the postwar period, wages and productivity both grew together; strong productivity growth led to the creation of many good jobs and a strong middle class in the United States. Since the 1970s, however, the profits of organizations resulting from productivity increases have not been shared with workers or with America’s working families. Despite the strong productivity growth in the United States during this period, economic compensation (including wages and employer-provided health benefits) has not kept pace for nonsupervisory workers and in some cases has declined. The gap between productivity and compensation began to widen in the late 1970s and has grown ever since. Indeed, the 2000s have seen a historically large gap between productivity growth and compensation. Hence, the growth in productivity has not been paralleled by the growth of good jobs during this period.

Okun’s Law specifies a rough but empirically regular relationship between increases in GDP and decreases in unemployment. In recent years, however, the growth in productivity has been associated with higher levels of unemployment than would be expected on the basis of Okun’s Law. This reflects at least in part changes in work organization such as the growth of temporary and other forms of nonstandard work. Thus, we can no longer assume that growth in productivity will translate into better jobs.

Markets are social constructs, not forces that operate independently of the institutions that shape them. Social actors create a set of rules that define how markets operate; for example, whether they can function without regulations or if there are certain standards that buyers and sellers must meet in order to participate. Expressions such as the need for a “free market” are generally only rhetorical devices used to justify the status quo—such as the enormous inequalities that exist between the earnings of top managers and their workers in the United States—and to protect those whose interests are best served by allowing the current set of rules to operate. As social constructs, markets work best when we develop social institutions and policies that systematically remedy their weaknesses and excesses.


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