Employment is the state of being paid money to do things, or a measure of how many people are so employed. Its flipside is unemployment, and it is impossible to talk about one without talking about the other, but my concern here is more to discuss why employment is seen as positive, rather than why unemployment is bad. Like many economic statistics, employment is a rough measure of something which is broadly considered a good thing by society at large, but the reasons why it is considered a good thing are too complex for any of them to be adequately reflected by a brute figure.
Employment is a good thing because it is important for useful work to get done; because it is bad for people to feel useless; and because unemployment is currently associated with a drop in income, and often poverty. There are certainly other reasons, but I would argue that these are the most crucial.
While everyone would agree on the importance of useful work getting done, this is a quantity that is only loosely coupled with the rate of employment - increases in productivity mean more is achieved by fewer people; a great deal of useful work is not performed in exchange for money, and hence doesn't qualify as employment; and it can be plausibly argued that a great many people engage in a great deal of work that accomplishes little of real value - although it presumably does something to facilitate the transfer of wealth between different parties, or it wouldn't be happening at all.
The importance of feeling useful is enormous, and often underappreciated. People feel validated when they achieve something that they know people appreciate, and they are steadily worn down as people if they do not feel like they are regularly doing worthwhile things. This observation relates to employment in at least three ways. One, many people in the current system do not feel like what they are employed to do is really worthwhile. Two, there is reason to think that the desire to feel useful is in some ways a more effective motivator than the desire to earn money. Three, it helps explain why so much useful work is done entirely for free, and why many people choose lower paid jobs that they believe help people.
The fact that wealth is withheld from the unemployed is of course a contingent feature of our economic system. It may have been necessary in ages past, when producing enough for everyone was a real challenge, but that has not been the case for a long time, so it is worth looking at why the association between work and wealth persists. Two obvious reasons relate to justice and motivation. People like to feel that other people have earned what they get, especially if they feel they had to themselves. On the other hand, people sometimes become unemployed through no fault of their own, and most would agree that it is better if such people do not inevitably starve to death - hence we have have the welfare state, charities, and so on to ensure that employment is not the only way to get by. Meanwhile, there is a fear that people would not bother to work if they weren't paid to do it, or at least would not do enough of the right kinds of work.
Each of these interacting reasons suggests ways in which employment figures fail to correlate with human welfare, and they may lead to us to formulate some ways of furthering one without the other. We ought to be at least a little suspicious, then, of arguments made for or against any project or programme of change simply on the basis of jobs being gained or lost. If a country gains 1,000 jobs doing some task which - materially speaking - is either useless or actively destructive, then they have gained almost nothing besides an agreement to keep 1,000 fewer people in poverty, who almost certainly didn't need to be kept in poverty in the first place and who may previously have been doing something better with their time. Nothing is really being done to alleviate their poverty, or improve the material or spiritual well-being of humankind; all that has changed is an agreement about how to distribute the existing wealth. Conversely, if productivity improvements mean that 1,000 people can now do work that used to take the labour of 2,000, nothing is being lost in material terms by laying off 1,000 workers, since all the work is still getting done. There are down-sides of course, which we need to take seriouly - our current socio-economic arrangement means those 1,000 people are probably thrown into unearned poverty, at least for a time, with one less reason to feel useful. On the other hand, if they can find something useful to do with their time - whether in employment or on their own initiative - we gain the product of 1,000 people's useful labour and lose little.
Another, related reason to be wary of employment statistics is the way that each individual case is seen in binary terms - employed, or unemployed - when various other arrangements are possible which fall outside of the standard, full-time employer-employee relationship. Many people are self-employed - sometimes only barely, sometimes working almost all the time. Cooperatives can amount to something like a kind of collective self-employment. Voluntary work puts unpaid time investment on a formal or semi-formal basis. Many people do part-time work, including people who would rather be full-time, and sometimes an official drop in unemployment can mask a larger rise in underemployment. These are just a few of the reasons for disagreement over exactly what employment and unemployment figures ought to represent - adjustments may also be made based on the time of year, marital status, ability to work and so on.
Treating employment as inherently good is seductive, because the alternatives to employment have so often been so awful - although many will complain that their jobs are pretty dire, too. But as technological and other advances keep on driving up productivity in so many ways, while our economic system keeps failing to provide formal employment for so many, perhaps it is time to be looking seriously at other strategies to meet the needs we have counted on employment to fulfil. How much do we need to rely on money exchange to make sure useful work gets done? How much do we need to rely on formal employment to make sure people get to spend enough of their time doing things that make them feel valued? How much of our wealth do we collectively want to distribute to people without formal jobs, and how? How much of a role should democratic oversight have in determining remuneration for people who are in employment - whether through government, or other means? How can we track how well things are working if we can't rely on figures like employment and profit to do it for us?
These are questions to be addressed by individuals, by collectives, by companies and by governments. We already know that our current ways of doing things are far from optimal, and the only way out of that kind of mess is to experiment with different things that seem like they might work. The problems with employment as we know it are some of the biggest ones that humanity ought to be solving, but I don't see much creative thinking on them from many of our politicians. Fortunately we live in an age when it is easier than ever to get many things done, and promising new strategies for doing things can be tried out across the world - witness the rise of social media, crowdsourcing (and crowdfunding) and all the sites set up to allow people to share their skills (not to mention spare things and spaces) with remarkable efficiency, but often with no money changing hands at all.
All of these trends present challenges for existing models of employment and wealth allocation - most dangerously, all are associated with a kind of de-professionalization which makes it much harder for people to make a living at certain established professions, and risks lowering standards - but all manifestly have the potential to make life better overall. Perhaps the biggest job for governments ill-equipped to take a lead in this kind of economic experimentation is to find and use new measures of economic success, so that they can at least stay on top of what's going on. Perhaps this will help them to figure out ways to help facilitate these sorts of experiment, mitigate their worst effects, or at least get out of the way.
The Industrial Revolution made a great many jobs obsolete, changing the nature of employment forever - and with it, the social and economic structures of the world. Capitalism rose out of the ashes of feudalism in the decades that followed. We are now in the midst of another great shift in the way employment works, which may or may not have similarly profound consequences. Once again new technology is making many of the old jobs superfluous, but creating many new opportunities as it does it. It could be that radical economic experimentation is inevitable in this context - nobody quite knows what will work yet, but we can be pretty sure that the status quo is falling apart. Where we'll end up is anyone's guess; in the meantime we're all along for the ride, whether we like it or not. It's up to us if we want to try and help steer this thing.