AS the final stragglers return from their festive breaks today, the memory of Christmas is likely to linger only in a certain tightness in the waistband of one's work trousers.

In the streets around The Herald's City office in London the overpriced sandwich shops will reopen, albeit with the salads in a more prominent place, as the traders and bankers return from skiing breaks, and everyone else comes back from the sales.

For philosopher Alain de Botton work is as central to a good life as love. Many of us spend nearly as much time at work as at home, and in the case of the Masters of the Universe, much more.

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Yet the central position of the workplace in our lives is often overlooked.

This year it is likely take a more prominent role in our national conversation as the strength of the economic bounceback is assessed.

The economic recovery, such as it is, has been surprisingly job-rich. The number of people in employment has grown by some 600,000 in the past five-and-a-half years to a record 30.1 million, albeit aided by population growth.

Unemployment peaked at 8%, lower than in the United States, and in Spain, where levels approached 25%.

This year economists expect the UK jobless rate to fall close to the 7% level set by the Bank of England as a sign of economic strength and a trigger for discussions on interest-rate rises.

But there are concerns about the quality of these new roles. There is strong evidence of under-employment, of workers taking part-time roles when they want full-time positions, or working on temporary contracts when they desire permanent ones. The abuse of so-called zero-hours contracts has become a worry.

Last year, yet again, inflation outstripped wage growth, leaving workers worse off.

This is occurring in the context of a re-working of the relationship between the employee and employer. The job for life has gone. The final salary pension scheme that just about assured a comfortable retirement is rare in the private sector.

Social clubs and subsidised work canteens are a distant memory. Even workplace training has been steadily declining since the turn of the century.

The relationship between worker and employer is now more transactional. For some, particularly those with rare skills, these changes can be positive giving them the flexibility to reset their work-life balance and negotiate their own pay rates.

Many employers argue that, if it wasn't for the UK's flexible labour market, they wouldn't have been able to stay afloat during the downturn, and more jobs would have been lost.

In the coming months we will see whether the economic upturn leads to a revised covenant between employer and employee.

In part this is about pay. So far the recovery has been fuelled by growth in consumption on the back of rising debt.

This suggests workers are anticipating future wage rises. If they do not materialise this could be damaging for the economy and for workplace relations.

Most workers still expect their job to make them happy. This is hard to achieve in a world of declining real incomes, limited training opportunities and job insecurity.