Still working?

For a while in the 1980s and 1990s there was a school of thought that in the new millennium work and employment would be all different. For a start, there wouldn’t perhaps be that much employment any more, most people would be self-employed; and there wouldn’t be a need for so many economically active people, so many of us would be able to – have to, even – live a life of leisure. One of the proponents of this particular outlook was the management guru Charles Handy, who set out his stall in books such as The Future of Work (1984). If we are to have a stable society in the future, Handy argued, we would have to stop thinking about permanent jobs for everyone and retirement at 65.

That kind of analysis, popular for a while, disappeared from view from the mid-1990s as the global economy boomed and as the labour market sucked up whatever people it could find to staff the growing industries of ICT, life sciences and so forth. But now, as we observe the new recession and witness a wave of lay-offs and contractions, is this kind of thinking going to come back?

I confess I was never sold on the life-of-leisure-and-no-full-time-jobs idea. For too many people their sense of identity and self-esteem comes from their jobs. Also, while the recession may be putting pressure on employment, a more natural state of affairs during global growth will, I think, still be labour market shortages. On the other hand, the world changes all the time and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the nature of employment will also undergo some change. And it is clearly observable that the traditional ideal of working in one organisation for a lifetime is no longer typical. And tied into all this is the question of whether trade unions will be continuing advocates for what many would now regard as restrictive employment practices – many are already moving well away from that.

Whatever work will look like in the future, we do need to ask ourselves questions about it. Many things hang on it – how we should organise education and training, or how we should structure pensions and retirement. We are not asking these questions enough. And we need to.

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3 Comments on “Still working?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    do You remember Tomorrows World, on the BBC I think. That telly programme more than most seemed to catch the spirit of that age. But then who’d a thought Thatcher would have laid waste -in the very old meaning- of vast areas.
    The problem at the moment is that the hounds have not a scent on the next big thing.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Yes, I remember the ‘no more full-time jobs’ idea swirling about in the 1980s, when I was a teenager. A bit like the paperless office, it could scarcely have been more wrong, could it?

    Another source of retrospective amusement is that in the mid-1980s, my school offered special evening classes to teach typing (these were only available to the girls, naturally. No boy was expected to need such an unmanly skill). However, both teachers and parents actively discouraged academically-inclined girls like me from doing them, on the grounds that we weren’t destined to become secretaries, and therefore wouldn’t need to know how to type.

    Oh the irony. I regard the week-long intensive typing course I did in the mid-90s, which successfully taught me 50wpm touch-typing, as being as useful to my academic career as my PhD has been. So many of my colleagues laboriously try to produce 90,000 word monograph manuscripts by pecking at a keyboard with two fingers, giving themselves neck and back strain in the process. I presume they were also victims of the ‘oh no dear, you don’t need to know how to type’ school of thought in the 80s.

    Who knew back then that the days of the typing pool were so severely numbered?


    • Yes, futurology is almost invariably wrong! Its point of reference is almost always the past rather than the future.

      Yes, my own typing skills (while not as good as yours) have been a vital element of my life and work! And God help us, yes, the typing pool!


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