Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs across Countries and Companies

By Almeida, Richard A. | International Social Science Review, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs across Countries and Companies


Almeida, Richard A., International Social Science Review


Carre, Francoise and Chris Tilly. Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2017. xiii + 306 pages. Softcover, $35.00.

The core of this well-researched, timely book rests upon a simple thesis: in advanced economies, retail jobs are generally not "good" jobs--and they are getting worse. Since the retail sector tends to be the leading employer in postindustrial economies, this observation has broad and deep ramifications. Francoise Carre, Research Director at the Center for Social Policy at the J.W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts--Boston and Chris Tilly, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, embed their deceptively simple thesis into a framework of social, economic, and political factors that explain patterns of similarity and difference among two different types of retail jobs (food retail and consumer electronics) in the US and between the US and a selection of countries in Western Europe. Their essential conclusion--that while retail jobs are seldom "good" jobs in advanced economies, they are worse in the United States than they are in Western Europe. Carre and Tilly's work provides both an adequate framework for evaluating the low quality of retail jobs at home and abroad, and also a reasonable set of policy and institutional solutions to improve the overall quality of retail employment.

Carre and Tilly base their analysis on extensive field research conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark (with a brief excursus into Mexico City). The fieldwork centers on eighteen retail firms (ten grocery chains and eight electronics retailers), wherein the authors conducted on-site interviews with staff, both frontline and managerial. The data were collected between 2005-2007, which opens the door to interesting and important questions about the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, which are unfortunately beyond the scope of the book. In the book, the firms are identified pseudonymously, which likely played a role in helping the authors gain the access and cooperation that is evident by the wealth of information the fieldwork was able to generate.

Where Bad Jobs Are Better makes two major contributions to the study of the contemporary political economy. The first of these contributions is its careful disaggregation of the massive US retail employment sector. While Carre and Tilly's study only food retail, consumer electronics, and "big box" stores, their findings illuminate the retail sector as a whole and also suggest many insights that should be broadly applicable to the postindustrial work environment as a whole. Factors like deskilling, precisely-managed computerized global supply chains, and a relentless focus on short-term earnings and profitability have impacts which extend far beyond the retail sector. Indeed, the authors note that the retail sector is often a laboratory for changes that then spread to other economic sectors. When those economic changes are coupled with a political environment that is primed to erode institutional features that protect lower-wage, lower-skill workers, it is easy to paint a dire picture of the future quality of retail jobs--not just for frontline employees, but for managers as well. …

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