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Donkin on Work - Work Futures

August 2005 – Workplace trends

The appetite for trend spotting reports in the employment market shows no sign of receding as companies grapple with the social and economic changes that are influencing the future prospects of business.

The only thing we can predict with any certainty about the future is its uncertainty. So some of the best attempts at prediction can come unstuck when they are subjected to the influences of as yet undiscovered technologies, social and environmental changes, and the impact of events.

To maintain an honest and credible approach, therefore, predictions must be based on the evidence of existing trends. Michael Moynagh and Richard Worsley have chosen this path in their new book, Working in the Twenty -First Century*, that looks at the implications for the emerging landscape of work in the UK.

One problem of this approach, particularly since it draws heavily on the work of the Economics and Social Research Council’s Future of Work Programme, is that it delivers few surprises. The ESRC findings have been in the public domain for some time.

Another problem is that the findings are not remotely sexy. They robustly contradict fashionable ideas of the 1990s such as the management writer, Charles Handy’s concept of the “portfolio manager” that envisaged a workforce populated by greater numbers of freelances and self-employed executives.

There was something seductive about a world where people might have greater control of their working lives to the extent that they decide for themselves just how much work they want to engage in at any particular time. Where greater flexibility has occurred in the UK workforce, however, it has happened within the context of the permanent job.

All the evidence of the ESRC programme suggests that the traditional employer-employee contract is as persistent as it ever has been in the UK employment market. “One job per person has stayed the norm, permanent full-time employment remains dominant, workers are not moving more often from one employer to another and the ‘career’ - as a way of viewing work - has triumphed,” say the authors, quoting a figure of some 94 per cent of working men in permanent jobs in the UK in 2000, based on government statistics.

According to the Labour Force Survey temporary employment peaked in 1997 with eight per cent of the population reporting temporary contracts, then fell back to six per cent in 2003, the same as it had been 10 years earlier.

Based on these findings, the authors believe this pattern will continue. “Workers will want stable employment for financial reasons while employers will want the same to aid the accumulation of knowledge, hang on to key staff and manage change more easily,” they write.

If, anything, they say, career structures have improved in many companies. Between 1985 and 2001 the proportion of employees seeing themselves as having a career rose from just under a half to 60 per cent.

But how can academics be sure that such trends will continue? Some may recall the very credible scenario of a future superpower conflict outlined by the late General Sir John Hackett in his book The Third World War, published in 1985. It was an excellent book for its time but only four years later its scenarios were overtaken by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr Moynagh and Mr Worsley recognise the perils of making forecasts that extend too far in to the future. While most immediate economic indicators remain bullish about the factors influencing UK job prospects in the long term, they add: “The further out we go to the mid 2020s, the greater is the danger that climate change will cast a shadow over the global economy.”

But what about more recent events? Who is to say that UK immigration – expected in the book to have an important influence on trends – will not change radically as a result of the suicide bombings in London by Islamic fundamentalists?

Is it not possible that these same bombings, if maintained, could have a radical impact on home working and travel-to-work behaviours? Mr Worsley thinks not. He says: “I think it would take a massively organised succession of incidents to shift the ruggedness and fixedness of people’s ways of working.”

The first findings of the Department Of Trade and Industry’s Workplace Employment relations Survey (WERS 2004)** , released too recently for analysis within the book, point to a substantial increase in flexible working arrangements, including home working, term time working, job sharing and working flexible hours.

Such influences have led the authors to conclude that change will have a stronger impact on how people work more than on how they are employed. Up to now, they note, employers have continued to dictate terms on flexibility for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of employees.

“At present,” they write, “ ‘Britain’s flexible labour market’ refers to flexibility for employers more than employees, and many people don’t like it. They wish there was something better. Will the employer view continue to prevail, or will the employee perspective gain ground?”

Their belief, is that in the medium term, at least, the future of flexibility will continue to be driven by market and employer needs. “In the service economy, flexibility for consumers will take priority over flexibility for employees,” they write. When will “consumers” realise that they are employees too? For every individual who wants shops open at 10 pm there is another who has to work unsocial hours behind a counter.

My own view is that the book’s forecast of a “battered” future for employees trying to balance their working and domestic lives, is a little too bleak. But I do agree that the best intentions of people to find more accommodating ways of working are often ruined by their own lifestyle and financial choices. “What individuals want will be tempered by the reality of their financial circumstances,” write the authors.

My strongest reservations relate to the strength of informal working practices that are difficult to analyse from statistics. When I was in a salaried job I worked all kinds of odd hours and spent time working at home that was never recorded anywhere. Even in more formal workplaces many people manage to trot out on errands or make personal phone calls or research their holidays on the internet during their working time, often with few objections. Indeed it is difficult for managers to object because they engage in such practices as much as anyone. It is the way that domestic life has drifted in to the workplace.

Academic studies will always struggle to pick up on the growth of such informality. That aside, Mr Moynagh’s and Mr Worsley’s study represents perhaps the clearest, most thorough and studied body of research in the UK to emerge in recent years and should be required reading for policy makers and human resources directors. It will be interesting to see how well it stands up against the findings of the new WERS research.

*Working in the Twenty-First Century, by Michael Moynagh and Richard Worlsey is published by the ESRC in association with the Tomorrow Project, price £20. www.tomorrowproject.net.

** WERS first findings can be downloaded from www.dti.gov.uk/er/inform.htm

   
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