August 2003 - Work futures
There seems to be an awful lot
of crystal ball gazing just lately about the future
of work. As the Economic and Social Research Council
winds up a two-year-long research programme, another
is starting based on a partnership between the
UK's Work Foundation and Sense Worldwide, a London-based
It is only a few years ago that
the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts,
Manufactures and Commerce ran a similar programme,
leading to a report called Redefining Work. I
still have a copy. It said the way we work was
changing. Paradoxically, the ESRC programme concluded
that the way we work was changing less than many
of us think.
Jeremy Brown, who runs Sense
Worldwide, promises a "fresh perspective,
engaging people in a conversation". He says:
"If things are not changing that much, then
we will say so." But "business as usual"
does not make headlines.
In the past few years I have
looked at a series of predictions surrounding
workplace change and have concluded that there
is an art to futurology. The first rule of prediction
is to go well into the future, say, 50 years hence
when everyone, including you, will have forgotten
everything that you said. If you were right and
you are still around you can say: "I told
you so." If you were wrong, you can simply
keep your head down.
The second rule is to forecast
that things are going to be different. No one
is interested in predictions that say there will
be no real change.
Rule three, an obvious one, is
to base your forecasts on current or historical
trends. People generally ignore the fact that
history often repeats itself, so current trends
tend to be adopted by most forecasters. The problem
with this approach is that we cannot know whether
these trends will be arrested or reversed.
I recall my geography teacher
in the early 1970s telling me that by the turn
of the century the world would have run out of
oil. But we found new reserves and better ways
to extract existing resources. The same teacher
told me that large companies had discovered the
merits of diversification. This was before the
fashion for core competencies.
Rule four is timing. If you wait
around long enough, anything can happen. Diversification
may be due for a revival. There may even be a
third world war eventually. But it will not be
the extension of the cold war forecast by General
Sir John Hackett in his book The Third World War.
The book was a compelling read when it was published,
during the 1970s. But it was wrong.
I have been planning my own book
on the future of work. The proposal is that the
world of work is changing (see rule two) and that
we are moving steadily towards a watershed. The
most crucial variable is the steepness of the
trend and my belief is that we are in the early
stages of a change that could take 50 years or
more to come about (see rule one).
I would date the beginning of
the change to July 1990, when the Harvard Business
Review published an article by Michael Hammer,
"Re-engineering work, don't automate, obliterate".
The article and a subsequent book led to a worldwide
efficiency movement that changed the way people
related to their employers.
This is another important feature
of forecasting. You need a beginning. When Alvin
and Heidi Toffler predicted that the world of
work was changing in their 1980 book The Third
Wave, they dated the beginning of the change to
1956, the year in which white-collar workers outnumbered
blue-collar workers in the US for the first time.
If we look back at the 1950s
we may be tempted to ask: "So what?"
But the Tofflers have become so well established
as futurists that a few misses here and there
are hardly going to spoil their reputation.
The trend that interests me most
is that towards temporary, contract and free agency
forms of working. Why? Because that is how I work
and I do not like to be in a minority. It is a
world that has become familiar, so it seems fair
to assume that it is happening everywhere. Well,
no, it is not.
Most people are happy with their
full-time jobs, according to labour force statistics.
And this is not without good reason, since full-time
work can offer benefits that contractors do not
get: holiday pay, company pensions, share option
schemes, company cars, sickness insurance, training
and, yes, promotion prospects. For in spite of
the movement towards flatter hierarchies, there
remains a career ladder. It just has fewer rungs
The only problem with managerial
promotion is that many technical jobs are so intrinsically
interesting and important that it may not be wise
to promote the best technicians. This issue has
been recognised for many years but has yet to
be fully resolved. If you promote a fine technician
who cannot manage, you are going to be in trouble.
Better, perhaps, to promote an average technician,
if he or she knows how to handle people and can
recognise excellence when he or she sees it.
Unfortunately, in too many instances
the wrong people have been promoted, too much
reliance has been placed on their abilities and
too much money has been paid to them. Too many
companies are in trouble as a result.
Companies are surviving on the
sum of their employee parts, not because of great
leadership . The best way to deal with this problem
may be to drop the concept of "promotion".
In fact, the whole language of work needs an overhaul.
This leads me back to the watershed
theory. When graduates see contracting as a career
option; when enough able people are working outside
the system that continues to be dominated by large
businesses; when networked systems of co-operative
working are perfected - and the internet is improving
these systems all the time - the strengths of
the worker as free agent will begin to be recognised.
These days, the most important
strength of the contractor appears to be flexibility.
But in time, free agents will be employed more
for their skills and their knowledge. Will such
people ever dominate the global workforce? Not
tomorrow and not the next day. Give them about
as a pdf file