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
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
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
“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
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
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