November 2007 - A future for the job
Where is the workplace heading in the next ten to 15 years?
While some might argue that it’s anybody’s guess,
a few studies over the past year or two have tried to make
some educated predictions, based on existing trends in the
recruitment and labour markets.
One of the most recent research exercises has been carried
out by PricewaterhouseCoopers using the scenario planning
techniques popularised in the 1970s at Shell, the oil company.*
A team of consultants plotted three possible scenarios
based partly on the findings from a survey of nearly 3,000
graduates from China, the UK and the US, all of whom were
preparing to start work with PWC.
This might explain some surprising findings. The vast majority
of the group, some 75 per cent, expected to be working formal
office hours in future, rather than working flexibly. Nearly
all expected to be working across geographic borders and
hardly any of them - less than one per cent - thought they
would work mainly from home.
Whatever happened to the portfolio worker? Is he pr she
a myth, as the survey group would suggest? For this tightly
drawn group of individuals it may well be. Each of them
is embarking on a career in a professional services firm
that, like all such firms, expects high levels of commitment
among those who join its ranks.
I suspect there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy
here. Indeed, if I were joining PWC as a 20-something graduate
whose expectations had been shaped by a career-focused,
exam-tested college and university education, I would probably
be saying the same things. I would not be saying, whether
offered anonymity or not, that I would be scooting off at
the first opportunity. But I wonder if these employees will
feel the same way in 10 years’ time?
Many graduates who head in to professions that can deliver
the duel benefit of extra training and qualifications and
high rewards are prepared to trade long hours and hard work
in return. It doesn’t take long before they are locked-in
to this transactional arrangement, having taken on high
levels of mortgage debt.
But there are thousands of other graduates out there who
are choosing other routes in to work. Commendably the PWC
study looks at three different employment scenarios that
could deliver alternative experiences for those who are
less attracted to traditional professions.
As it points out, the scenarios need not be mutually exclusive
and could overlap. The first envisions a world where big
company capitalism prevails. This could well be the picture
for significant sectors of the economy such as banking and
information technology and the energy sector.
In this world, says the report, many companies will be
providing the equivalent of the welfare state for their
employees to retain the most talented people.
There are elements of this scenario that read like the
Brave New World of business where “people are graded
and profiled at the age of 16 and categorised for work suitability
both in terms of capability and individual preference.”
Companies, it forecasts, will employ “rigorous recruitment
processes to ensure new employees fit the corporate ideal.
Existing staff are subject to compulsory corporate culture
learning and development programmes.”
This smacks of corporate indoctrination. There will be
no wavering in performance in this system either. The systematic
measuring of “employee engagement, performance and
productivity” will see to that.
The more I read in this report, the more this highly professionalised
career of the future seems like selling your soul for inclusion
within a rigorously disciplined, almost captive, elite.
That might be understandable if we were talking about astronauts,
but are the personal sacrifices in study and effort worth
it for a career in accountancy or law?
“Those outside the corporate sphere,” says
the report, “find employment choices are limited to
smaller companies that are unable to provide the same level
of development and financial benefits.”
But in its other scenarios it concedes that there are alternatives.
One of these is a career among employers with strong environmental
credentials. The US graduates in particular, were attracted
to employers that could demonstrate social and environmental
concerns reflecting those of many young people who are entering
the jobs market.
The third alternative rejects the world of the large corporation,
embracing instead a world of fragmenting business characterised
by demergers and spin-offs connected and trading through
complex supply chains and networks.
In this world, says the report, “the exponential
rise in the efficiency of online systems for buying, selling
and trading services and skills has debunked completely
the old orthodoxy that economies arise from scale.”
This third scenario envisages a revival of guilds that
will help networked individuals market their specialist
skills. Employees could maintain their status by achieving
high scoring ratings for previous work.
I could see any of these scenarios developing and believe
it is quite possible that networks of businesses and individuals
could thrive in a world that is also populated by giant
corporations. The way that these corporations are changing
direction, or at least the direction of the vast wealth
flowing to individual founders, can be seen in the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation that has committed itself to
the goal of eradicating malaria.
The foundation is channelling much of the accumulated wealth
in two great corporate fortunes, that of the Gates family
and that of Warren Buffet in to large and small projects
aimed at fighting disease, poverty and inequality in different
parts of the world.
In spite of my reservations about the narrowness of the
graduate sample, I would not quibble with all of the survey
opinions. While I do think there will be greater flexibility
and greater home working in future, I believe the portfolio
career will remain the exception rather than the rule.
I know from experience just how difficult it is to work
without the support of an employing company. There are definite
bonuses, but I would not recommend it as a way of starting
The job is not dead and won’t be disappearing in
my lifetime but new technologies and the exciting growth
of internet-based networks are affording greater potential
for collaboration in ways that would have been less likely
in the past.
Performance measuring is improving too, but people are
notoriously unpredictable and that’s probably a good
thing. The promise of human capital – the concept
of investing in employees, producing visible returns - has
much merit but we must be careful not to go too far in to
People are not robots; nor are they human machines to be
reared, maintained and developed for doing the bidding of
a corporation. I’m sure some companies and their shareholders
would like it that way. But the need for self-expression
is a growing trend and fewer people today are willing to
accept that an organisation is greater than the individuals
who serve it. The collective-thinking of a previous generation
may not survive the next one.
*Managing tomorrow’s People: The Future of Work
2020 can be downloaded from www.pwc.com.
See also: Who
Wants to be a Commodity?