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Donkin on Work - Work Futures

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 a career.

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 human engineering.

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

See also: Who Wants to be a Commodity?

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved