April 1997 - Redefining work
Do we need to redefine the way
we work? That is the question posed by the Royal
Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures
and Commerce (RSA), in a project to investigate
the implications of changing work patterns.
The RSA's contention that it
is focusing on "one of the big issues of
the day" would appear to be supported by
the growing body of literature on the changes
already experienced in the way people work. To
stimulate debate, the society has published a
discussion paper, Key Views on the Future of Work
, which neatly summarises some of the main arguments
on the subject.
Written by Valerie Bayliss, a
former director of youth and education policy
at the Department of Education and Employment,
the paper begins by summarising the sort of changes
under discussion. It points out that a predominantly
male UK labour force has been replaced by one
in which nearly half are women.
The dominance of manufacturing
has been broken by the service industries which
now employ almost half of all workers. The geography
of employment has shifted from the north towards
the south and east and nearly every workplace
Demographic changes mean that
fewer young people are entering work under the
age of 18. And a quarter of the population of
working age is now economically inactive - rising
to half for men aged between 55 and 65.
Full-time work, once the norm,
is supplemented by increasing numbers of employees
on part-time, temporary or fixed contracts. Self-employment
is also on the increase with one in eight now
working for themselves.
The RSA seems reasonably assured
that all these factors amount to a problem - though
Bayliss admits there is considerable debate over
the nature of the problem.
Jeremy Rifkin, in The End of
Work (Putnam), forecasts that the march of technology
will create an almost workerless world. Bill Bridges,
on the other hand, argues in Jobshift (NB Books)
that it is not so much work that is disappearing
but the employment package we recognise as a job.
Searching for potential solutions,
Bayliss turns to Stanley Aronowitz and William
DiFazio's book, The Jobless Future; Sci-Tech and
the Dogma of Work (University of Minnesota Press).
This outlines the need for a society where everyone
receives a guaranteed income but no able citizen
is free from the obligation to work. Such a society,
says the paper, would be supported by a more redistributive
taxation system and labour market regulation.
Significantly, she notes that
almost all the authors she has studied call for
more investment in skills. Ewart Keep and Ken
Mayhew, for example, argued in a collection of
essays on work published by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation (Education, Training and Employment
Prospects) that the biggest problem for UK employment
is rising demand for skills in those parts of
the economy that compete internationally.
Bayliss concludes that the chief
distinction in the debate is between "those
who believe that the forces operating to reduce
jobs are irresistible and those who believe those
forces can be controlled".
She adds: "There is a near-universal
belief that it is a matter of political will how
far the available work, and the resulting income,
is shared or concentrated among populations."
Given the history of changing
work patterns it may be pertinent that Bayliss
remarks upon the lack of discussion over new work.
"It is remarkable how little credence, or
even debating space, is given to the notion that
technology will, of itself, generate jobs of a
kind we cannot yet foresee," she writes.
© 1997 The Financial Times
Ltd. All rights reserved
as a pdf file