31 January 2012

What is a Job?

People familiar with my work, such as in The Honest Broker and The Climate Fix, will also be familiar with my interest in unpacking issues and problems into comprehensible bits. To that end in the area of innovation I am going to be posting on some definitional issues to simply sort through a number of basic propositions as a matter of clarifying my own thinking and writing.

In this post I am exploring the definition of a "job" -- which is a concept that carries considerable political importance and is a variable that we'd like to modulate via policy, but which typically falls into the category of "too obvious to define precisely."

What is a job?  Let's start with the following definitions related to employment offered  by the US government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (emphasis in the original):
The basic concepts involved in identifying the employed and unemployed are quite simple:
  • People with jobs are employed.
  • People who are jobless, looking for jobs, and available for work are unemployed.
  • People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.
The survey is designed so that each person age 16 and over who is neither in an institution (for example, correctional facilities and residential nursing and mental health care facilities) nor on active duty in the Armed Forces is counted and classified in only one group. The sum of the employed and the unemployed constitutes the civilian labor force. Persons not in the labor force combined with those in the civilian labor force constitute the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and over.
These definitions, which date to 1942 (source), are extremely useful because they clearly define how the government views employment, which is the variable that policy makers seek to modulate when talking about "jobs." But these definitions don't quite get us to a fundamental definition of "jobs."

Here is what the BLS says about jobs:
Not all of the wide range of job situations in the American economy fit neatly into a given category. For example, people are considered employed if they did any work at all for pay or profit during the survey week.
This leads me to the following description of a job:

The defining characteristic of a job is an exchange between and employer and an employee, of wages (or some other compensation) for services (economists like to call such services "labor," defined variously in terms of skills, knowledge, capabilities, etc.). Governments regulate such services in many ways (e.g., some services may be disallowed -- think hit men, drug dealing or prostitution) and the terms of employment are also regulated (e.g., minimum wage, occupational safety, etc.).

All jobs are thus service jobs. With that as a starting point, we are in a position to ask ourselves, in what ways should we categorize and classify jobs in order to help realize the various objectives of public policy? The answer to this question is not obvious, and it is not clear to me that the official government categories are necessarily the most useful or helpful for thinking about policies related to jobs -- recent discussions here related to "manufacturing" are one example.