In her 2014 book, The Good Jobs Strategy, MIT professor Zeynep Ton used more than a decade of research to argue compellingly that businesses—particularly those operated by low-wage workers—could not only afford to treat workers better but would benefit financially if they did so. Two years later, after receiving dozens of phone calls seeking her advice, she founded the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute to educate, consult, and conduct research about what a Good Job is and how it affects profitability.
By her definition, this work starts (much like Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs) with basics—fair pay and benefits, stable and predictable schedules, a path to higher pay, and physical and economic job security. Once those are covered, Good Jobs should provide work that’s meaningful, that allows personal growth, a sense of belonging, and recognition for accomplishments.
Ton has already advised a number of companies and business leaders on plans for improvement, and she cites increasing minimum-wage laws and improved pay at Walmart, Target, and Amazon as signs of the sea change to come—but they’re just the first steps in what she considers a crucial overhaul of low-wage-workers’ conditions. “Public policy alone certainly cannot drive daily meaning and dignity into jobs,” Ton says. “If a company is using its workers as interchangeable parts, is not empowering its workers to make decisions, no public policy can make them do that.”
sShe points out that much of the conversation around improving jobs has focused on “up-skilling” workers into “better” fields—but that can’t be the solution for all 40 million people who currently make less than $15 an hour. Service people will always be needed, she says. Beyond making a profit, companies should care about these workers because of the vital roles they play in making our society function. “These are the people who take care of our parents, our children, who prepare and serve our food, who sell us groceries,” Ton says. “They have the right to earn living wages and have meaningful community.”
With the Good Jobs institute, Ton hopes to improve 10 million of those roles. “I think there will be improvement in the next five years, but we won’t have solved the problem.”
Here’s a look at how Good Jobs have started improving workers’ lives—and businesses’ bottom lines: