Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000

Working Hard and Making Do

Margaret K Nelson and Joan Smith
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
0520215753 (pb)
13.95/ US$35.00 (pb); 16.95/ US$45.00 (hb)
279 + X

Order this book

It is flattering and a pleasure to review what is, in effect, a partial replication of my study of all forms of work on the Isle of Sheppey published as Divisions of Labour in 1984. The authors studied "Coolidge County" in rural Vermont and interviewed 117 individuals in 81 households between 1991 and 1992. In many respects their findings matched mine and, in particular, they found that those households with multiple earners in decent jobs were precisely those who engaged in all other forms of work, including self-provisioning, entrepreneurial side work and so on. This was contrary to their expectations and they were also surprised to find that those living in households without at least one job were unable to deploy the multi-faceted survival strategy that might be expected. I, too, found this and was equally surprised nearly twenty years ago, as they accurately acknowledge on p.219.

However, the interesting and original contribution of this study relevant to contemporary debates is their emphasis on the crucial importance of the distinction between "good work" and "bad work". These terms are operationalised along two main dimensions: the first focuses on whether the job is regular and full-time to define it as good and the second is concerned with the availability of benefits, workplace stability and the degree of "bureaucratisation". These various items were scored and those jobs with scores of five or more were defined as "good jobs". Fifty six percent of all waged jobs held by respondents were classified as "good jobs".

In the analysis which follows, the authors show again and again that it is the quality of the job that emerges as the key determinant of life chances and access to all other forms of work. It might be assumed that this was just another piece of evidence supporting the human capital theorists. Their data did not support this: whilst, as might be expected, households with at least one good job had members who were better educated, this did not ensure permanent advantage. Once members shifted from being in a good job household to being in a bad job household, "they began to resemble other bad job households far more than they did their former 'peers' ". (p.59).

The polarisation which I described in the Sheppey study was based more on the number of earners in the household than the actual quality of the employment that members engaged in. Nelson and Smith's greater emphasis on the detailed characteristics of employment in the local labour market is an important advance. It is truly remarkable how far-reaching the impact of bad jobs is. Where one member of the household has a good job, there is far more opportunity for other members to take risks:

"Because good work ensures sick leave and paid holidays - paid time off that is crucial if both adults in a family (and especially one with young children) are going to remain employed - the primary worker can meet his or her family obligations without fear of being fired, and the "other" worker (regardless of the quality of his or her own work) does not have to jeopardise a job when crises arise". (p.71)
This theme is explored in detail in the chapter on Gendering Strategies, a topic less-well covered in my study.

This book should be a central text on all student courses where the connections between family, gender, work and households are explored. There are very strong policy implications for New Labour-Marketism in Britain. It is well-written, accessible and full of fascinating qualitative accounts.

A particular bonus is that there appears to be a separate book occupying a fifth of the total length composed entirely of the footnotes, these are exceptionally full and thorough and often go well beyond what is stated in the text. Indeed, I cannot help wondering whether this second book was written by the "long series of assistants" - 14 women and 1 man - mentioned in the Acknowledgements. If this is true, I do hope that these assistants were not all in "bad jobs" working for the two good jobbing authors. I rather fear that they might be.

Ray Pahl
University of Kent at Canterbury

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000