Good Working Lives for the 21st Century

A Shared Exercise in Imagination
Blog Post
Five people standing around a table with a large sheet of paper covered in drawings and magazine clippings. One person is talking and gesturing at the table, while others listen.
Nov. 1, 2023

What is the shape of a good working life in this century?

This question anchors an imaginative inquiry that Dr. Hilary Cottam has designed and led in collaboration with workers from a wide range of sectors and backgrounds in the UK.

In the fall of 2022, Hilary joined the New Practice Lab as a Fellow, bringing her work to the US in partnership with the New Practice Lab. The New Practice Lab at New America works to improve family economic security and wellbeing through the way social policy is designed and delivered. We believe good policy design focuses on real families’ lived experience and prioritizes making a difference in people’s daily lives.

Over a period of weeks, we worked together and with local partners to test the imagination workshops in Baltimore and Detroit and to bring together activists, practitioners and thinkers over two events to discuss this work project, Hilary’s wider work on welfare reform and the importance of methodological innovation.

There is a growing interest in the future of work. At the New Practice Lab, a critical dimension of our research on family economic security and wellbeing is a focus on good work. In the US today, 60 percent of working Americans live paycheck to paycheck without savings in debt, unable to afford child care or health insurance. Half a million US adults are homeless. Only 44 percent of the U.S. workforce report having a “good job” based on their personal satisfaction with the job characteristics they care most about, according to Gallup research. The need to re-think work is therefore urgent and pressing.

Dr. Hilary Cottam’s research on work is framed within three wider seismic shifts. The first is the critical impact of technology revolutions which not only change the work available, but also have deeper social and cultural impacts, opening up potential spaces to agitate for the re-design of work and the work contract. The second is the ecological crisis, which demands that many thousands of us re-think the work we do as part of a climate transition. Again, this is both a challenge and an opportunity to re-design work in ways that deliver new forms of wealth: time, community, and more. The third reason to re-think work is injustice. We increasingly understand the way that structural injustices of gender, place, and above all race have been silently carried from decade to decade. Increasing numbers of people no longer want to be part of extractive economies, and the growth of new social movements is providing the energy to re-think and evaluate what our future approaches will focus on.

Within this context, Hilary’s research endeavor, “The Work Project,” asks two questions:

  • If we had the power, how would we redesign our working lives from start to finish?
  • What new types of organizations and other support do we need to make such working lives a reality?

In the framing of her research, Dr. Cottam notes that while there is a growing interest in the future of work, it is striking that (1) the voices of workers are left out; (2) the emphasis is on re-establishing 20th century norms/gains despite the different context and the unsustainable extraction of people and places that characterize 20th century work; and (3) technology is invoked in often simplistic terms of fear ("The robots are coming") or optimism ("AI will save us") without a more complex analysis of the way multiple factors interact to create futures. With this in mind, ‘The Work Project’ starts with workers in different sectors and places and seeks to imagine paths forward.

Imagining in Baltimore and Detroit

In collaboration with local partners that included Impact Hub, Center for Urban Families, Rebel Nell, ISAIC, and Grace in Action, Dr. Cottam and NPL led five workshops with workers in Baltimore in Detroit. These workshops brought together 44 workers across the construction, garment manufacturing, freelance design and other sectors.

At the start of the workshops, participants were invited to create individual life journey maps. Given a simple chart, they were invited to plot the arc of their lives across three dimensions: learning (formal and informal), work and personal relationships. The intention of this exercise was simply to invite people into the room and warm up the creative juices. Participants could share as much or as little as they liked, but the openness and honesty, often about extremely difficult life circumstances, was striking.

The core of the workshops consisted of two hour-long exercises conducted in small groups of four. In the first, participants were asked to design good working lives. As imagination prompts, participants were given a chart and a set of 64 playing cards that suggested a wide range of elements of life, and included blank cards for things not covered. As a group the participants had to order the cards and create the elements they thought were important for a thriving life. It should be noted that the card rankings are always interesting but the value lies in the conversations held throughout the process, which range widely and reveal new ideas and often radical imaginings.

In the second exercise, participants were given a paper table cloth, pens, glue, scissors, and magazines (for inspiration) and asked to create a new form of organization that could support a good working life. A series of reflective prompt questions were shared, such as: What would it feel like to be a member? Who would belong? What could you contribute to the organization? Who would own and run the organization? This type of creative exercise is usually a very new experience for participants, but in every case a form of organization was produced.

Participants Ideas of a Good Working Life

In Dr. Cottam’s work in the UK in very different locations with workers – across the sectors of care, health, refuse collection, assembly line packing, engineering, academics, digital entrepreneurs and professional consultants – the core factors of a good working life have emerged, including:

  • The need to re-think the boundaries of care and work in new ways that can repair communities, people and place;
  • A need for "second chances" and high-quality education (a need to escape the "narrow skills" conversation) and think about life transitions;
  • A desire to disrupt the linear life (study, work, retire) in deeply imaginative ways;
  • A search for meaning (money matters, but respect, a sense of belonging and purpose matter just as much);
  • A priority on relationships, and time to nurture them; and
  • A deep love of nature.

In the US, similar themes emerged during the activities in Baltimore and Detroit. Discussions with workers in those locations revealed:

  • Time is very valuable. Participants reflected on how feeling like they had time for themselves, people, and activities they loved were paramount for a good working life.
  • Relationships are central to people’s understanding of a flourishing life. Being present with, and caring for, loved ones is profoundly important. Many discussed the ways that care options (particularly early care and education) feel costly, and often inaccessible. Many participants also described a desire to have the option to play a more active caregiving role for their children.
  • The safety net is perceived as inadequate and unreliable. Having personal savings and working toward self-sufficiency is important.
  • Skills and the ability to retrain are important, though it's not easy to imagine how one might re-skill or retrain beyond formal education pathways. Imagination around different, especially horizontal forms of skills exchange was discussed.
  • People find more distributive design within and across organizations intriguing. Many expressed a desire for anything from broader consultative decision-making models to more formalized forms of shared ownership and governance.

Early workshops in the US revealed that participants found it challenging to imagine new forms of organization. Many participants were not part of other social organizations, clubs, churches, or other facilitations, and some groups defaulted to designing a better workplace rather than a different form of organization. Those who did focus on new forms of organizations talked about the need to foster broader relationships with those who could make bridges into other worlds, especially with those who could help with transitions. Participants also linked strong community infrastructure that creates vibrant and safe places to live with the creation of good local workplaces.

In her book Radical Help, Dr. Cottam quotes Audré Lorde’s insight:

“... that [the] master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

In other words, to make deep change in the world requires working in new ways – with new questions, new tools, and hearing new voices.

People-Centered Engagement in 2024

Looking forward to 2024, The New Practice Lab will be continuing our person-centered engagement through a multi-year journey with economically excluded families with young children to better understand what they need to thrive and how they would design resources and systems for support. Workshops with families began in April, with 34 families engaged across 4 workshops that we have continued to work with through a remote digital diary study. This work builds on Dr. Cottam’s efforts through “The Work Project” by providing insight on potential design activities that engage families in envisioning a prosperous system that supports their modern and evolving needs. The team seeks to both illuminate opportunities for improvement in the current landscape while also informing the design of future systems.

Dr. Cottam has concluded this first phase of The Work Project.” In a planned second phase she will write a book on 21st Century Working Lives, to be published by Little, Brown in 2024/2025. She is also exploring possibilities to develop a number of emerging themes in practice, including prototyping new forms of community work mutuals designed to support the creation of good work and good local economies, and a second work strand that focuses specifically on new forms of care organizing. If you are interested in partnering or supporting this work, please reach out to Hilary directly.