We can define a labour market as the ground in which employers seek to purchase labour from
potential employees who themselves are seeking jobs suitable to their education, experience, and
preferences. Government legislation affects how labour markets operate – minimum wage laws
and legislation governs the activities of trade unions. Of particular interest to sociologists are the
distributive aspects of the labour market.
According to the human capital theory, jobs requiring more effort, training and skill typically
receive greater rewards. This theory assumes that labour market participants compete openly for
jobs and that the most qualified people end up in the jobs requiring their particular skills.
However, a segmented labour market often allows the perpetuation of social inequalities.
Good Jobs and Bad Jobs
Since most workers are concerned about maintaining or improving their standard of living and
quality of life, material or extrinsic job rewards are very important. Occupational status is not
as subjectively determined as are the more intrinsic job rewards (the chance to be creative, to
work independently, to develop friendships in a job).
Considering only paid employees (excluding the self-employed), incomes in the service
industries are typically lower than in the goods producing industries. Statistics show that there is
more variation in employees‟ incomes within the service sector than within the goods producing
Some of the industrial and occupational differences in earnings are due to supply and demand
factors in a labour market that rewards educational investments. Also important are the
differences in the bargaining power of the various groups participating in the labour market.
While the gender wage gap has not declined significantly in the past few years, over the longer
term it has been decreasing as women‟s earnings have been rising slowly while the earnings of
men, on average have stalled. Part of the reason is women are investing more in higher
By restricting our discussion to broad occupational categories, we also overlook the extreme
ends of the income distribution in the Canadian labour market, e.g. CEOs earning unimaginably
high payouts. At the other end, are numerous workers with very low incomes. Legislated
minimum wages in Canada have been very low and have not kept up with inflation.
If a minimum wage employee is the only person with an income in a family with children, they
would be living well below the official low-income cutoff, called the poverty line. Hourly wage
rates in blue collar occupations such as construction or manufacturing are normally twice as high
as the minimum wage, however these earnings are still low for raising a family. Some of the working poor lack education or marketable skills, but many simply cannot find
well paid and secure employment.
Other Employment Benefits
Additional employment benefits – a form of indirect pay and increased income security – are
another important dimension of the quality of jobs. Canadian employers are legally required to
contribute to Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and Worker‟s Compensation.
As shown in Figure 3.1, full time private sector employees are about three times as likely as part
time workers to receive each of these benefits, except for a pension plan where they are only
twice as likely to be the beneficiary. Unionized employees are more likely to be the recipients of
non-wage benefits. Thus, distribution of benefits is highly polarized.
Risks to Personal Health and Safety
From the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, industrial fatality rates declined, to 5.2 deaths per
100 000 workers in 1996. The most recent fatality count is 5 deaths per working day. Mining has
the highest fatality rate, then logging and forestry and then fishing and trapping.
Unlike fatalities due to accidents which tend to occur among younger workers, the increase in
fatalities from exposure to harmful substances and environments is most observable among older
workers, who would have been exposed over a long period of time.
As with work related fatalities, rates of time-loss work injuries are higher in the goods
producing industries, particularly in forestry and manufacturing. The presence of unions
probably leads to a higher reporting of injuries by workers.
Not all workplace injuries and illnesses get reported and compensated, and the effects of some do
not become apparent for many years. Hence, it is useful to look at research on workplace
stressors that might be harming workers‟ health, e.g. demanding work, risks of accidents,
concerns of layoffs and poor interpersonal relationships.
Workers with lower incomes and fewer benefits are at greater risk of ill health and injury
because of their job. And some of the best paid groups within the labour market experience many
fewer risks to their health and safety.
While less important than income and benefits, and job security, occupational status is
something we must consider when comparing jobs. Researchers have developed two different
basic types of occupational status scales to rank occupations and thus locate individuals or
families within a social hierarchy or stratification system. The National Occupational
Classification provides prestige scores ranging from 0 to 100.
Boyd, took an alternative approach according to the average income and education of Canadians
currently in these occupations. Using 2001 national census data, she created the socioeconomic
status (SES) scale, ranging from 0 to 100. While the SES has a much wider actual range than does the prestige scale, both scales help us to
compare good jobs and bad jobs.
Canada’s Class Structure
The question of who has better and worse jobs in the Canadian labour market is really a question
about social inequality. The term social class is used in a variety of ways by social scientists.
Some treat it as socioeconomic status, determined by occupation, education and income.
Others such as Robert Reich (“symbolic analysts”) and Richard Florida (“creative class”) use the
concept to distinguish between occupational groupings that have become more prominent and
dominant in contemporary society.
Social class refers to a particular position within a stratified social structure and to the power
relationships among groups directly engaged in the production process. These relations of
ruling have an impact on the individuals‟ life chances.
Marx on Social Class
Marx focused on the relationship between the class of capitalists, who owned the means of
production, and the proletariat who worked for wages. Marx also discussed the middle class of
small business owners (the petite bourgeoisie) and predicted that it would disappear. Conflict
would eventually lead to the emergence of a new type of egalitarian society.
Post-industrial Class Structure of Canadian Society
Erik Olin Wright developed a classification of labour force participants in which he took into
account ownership, employment of others, the supervision of others and control over one‟s work.
He distinguished between large and small employers, two groups that have legal ownership and
also employ others, the petite bourgeoisie, who own their business but do not have others
working for them.
The large class of paid employees was separated by Wright into:
Workers (who have no ownership rights, decision making power or authority)
Semi-autonomous workers (e.g. social workers, professors and other salaried
A primarily class-based approach does not take into account how gender, race and ethnicity and
even age intersect with social class with respect to the distribution of better and worse jobs and
to power relationships within workplaces. The Human Capital Model
The human capital model is a theoretical perspective that assumes that a job‟s rewards are
determined by its economic contribution to society. It also predicts that dangerous jobs should be
paid more. When it comes to choosing whom to hire, employers make rational decisions, based
on an individual‟s ability.
According to this model, job seekers should invest in human capital (i.e. obtain higher
education), which can later be „cashed-in‟ for a better job.
This model looks at the supply side of labour markets and largely overlooks the demand side,
i.e. behaviour and characteristics of employers. This perspective is premised on a consensus
view of society, in contrast to the assumptions of conflict under-lying class based and labour
market segmentation approaches.
The social class of one‟s family can strongly influence later labour market outcomes. Effort and
competence do not always correlate neatly with labour market rewards. Reasonable returns on
education and training are obtained only in certain industrial sectors or only from some types of
Social Structure and Occupational Choice
People whose skills and abilities are more valued by society, and who have invested more in
education and training, will be leading candidates for the better jobs, according to the model.
While aptitudes and investments in education do play an important role, it is also clear that for
many working Canadians, family circumstances, social class background, and community of
original, along with personal attributes such as gender, race and ethnicity are important
determinants of educational and occupational choices and outcomes.
Equality of Educational Opportunity
One of the core values underlying our education system is that of equality of opportunity. This
is the belief that gender, ethnicity, family background, region of residence, or other individual
characteristic should not be an impediment to obtaining good education, and access to good jobs.
Coming from a family with a tradition of university attendance increases the chances of
completing university oneself. How do such patterns of intergenerational transfer of
Middle and upper class parents have higher expectations of their children, serve as role models,
and are more likely to financially support their children‟s schooling. In a 1970 longitudinal
study, we found much higher educational aspirations among young people from higher SES
Economic Advantage and Cultural Capital
More highly educated parent also have higher incomes, and more money means access to more
and better postsecondary education. In his analysis of social stratification systems Pierre Bourdieu introduced the concept of cultural
capital to further explain why middle-class youth perform better in the education system.
Schools encourage and reward the language, beliefs, behaviour and competencies of the more
powerful groups in society.
Differences by Gender and Region
As female labour force participation has increased and gender role attitudes have changed, the
proportion of young women going on to higher education has risen and recently exceeded male
rates. However, women are still more likely to enroll in „female‟ areas of study such as
education, nursing and the arts and humanities.
The longitudinal study from 1970 examined the effects of students‟ region of residence on
educational and occupational aspirations. The researchers noted that rural youth were less likely
to plan on and participate in higher education.
Occupational Mobility Research
The term social mobility generally describes how individuals or groups move from one position
within a social hierarchy to another. We can usefully distinguish between:
Intergenerational mobility which involves comparisons between an individual‟s occupational
status and that of someone in a previous generation, most frequently his or her parent
Intragenerational mobility involves comparisons between an individual‟s first full time job
after completing education and her job in mid-career.
Circulatory intergenerational mobility – when those with most talents etc. are to move onto
the higher occupational positions.
The steep decline in agricultural employment meant that many moved out of their fathers‟
occupation and for girls the major shift was moving out of housework like their mothers did
before. For both sexes postsecondary educational opportunities expansion played a big role
leading to higher status occupations. Over all there is only a limited amount of direct
occupational inheritance across generations. To conclude, the occupational stratification syste