Don’t believe the hype

Widespread
talk of a revolution in work life is not born out by statistics, says Stephen
Overell

The job for life is dead. All types of flexible working are rising. The pace
of work is accelerating, while employment is increasingly temporary and
short-term. Meanwhile, many people are tiring of long commutes and a punishing
work-life balance and are opting to go self-employed.

Heard it all before? Anyone who reads newspapers will have – both the red
tops and broadsheets have been gorging themselves on headlines like this for
years. Taken together, such trends are often referred to as ‘the new world of
work’ or ‘the transformation of work’.

In the real world

There’s just one small problem – this isn’t actually happening. The most
reliable sources of labour market data, such as the Government’s Labour Force
Survey1, a quarterly survey of 150,000 people carried out by the Office of
National Statistics, flatly contradict any intuition of turmoil. "The
widespread perception of huge change taking place at work does not bear much
relationship to reality," says Rob Wilson, principal research fellow at
the Institute for Employment Research (IER).

Self-employment is a striking example. Writers such as Charles Handy, the
management thinker cum social philosopher, and Daniel Pink, author of the
best-selling Free Agent Nation, have fed a conviction that a generation of ‘new
alchemists’ is going it alone, shaking off the shackles of wage-slavery and
turning freelance – or e-lance. It is not true. The Labour Force survey shows
2.5 million people are full-time self-employed. A decade ago, the figure was
2.6 million. Self-employment was a child of the 1980s, when mass redundancies and
changes to the tax system made it either an economic necessity or a useful
scam. It is expected to decline over the next decade.

It is a similar story with other talked-up trends. In 1984, temporary
workers accounted for 5.3 per cent of all employees. A decade later, after a
concerted push towards greater flexibility in policy, this figure rose to 6.5
per cent. Now, in 2002, temporary workers still account for 6.5 per cent of the
workforce.

Meanwhile, homeworking and portfolio careers are both ubiquitous in the
news, but less so on the ground. Portfolio workers – people who have a second
job – comprise about 5 per cent of the 28.2 million-strong UK labour force (up
from 3 per cent in 1984). Working from home is done full-time by 1.1 million
people – 3.9 per cent of the labour force. Both get glorious coverage compared
with the 21.7 million in traditional, permanent jobs.

What has happened to the job for life? In the 1990s, it became a platitude
for employers making redundancies to defend themselves by saying the job for
life was dead. The phrase testifies to a widespread anecdotal feeling of
insecurity, transience and that people no longer depend on one employer. Yet
the average length of time people stay in a job has barely altered since the
mid-1970s. Typically, employees remain in their job for five years and six
months; in 1985 they stayed for five years and two months. Three-quarters of
the working population are full-time, while 93 per cent are on permanent
contracts.

Peter Robinson, senior economist at the left-leaning think-tank the
Institute for Public Policy Research, says analysis of employment gets
distorted by too much focus on small, high-profile groups of employees.
"We spend too much of our time on the preoccupations of the few and
neglect the vast majority," he says. "Significant change does occur
within specific sectors and then the assumption is made that this is somehow
representative of the labour market as a whole. The real shock to the structure
of employment occurred in the early 1980s with the start of the loss of
manufacturing jobs. The changes taking place now are modest. It could be
immensely damaging if it skewed policy priorities."

Myth peddling

John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD, says another by-product of the
emphasis on the tumultuous pace of change is unnecessary anxiety. "We are
getting evolutionary change on the margins, but it takes a long time to work
through," he argues. He blames "a profusion of quick and dirty
surveys from organisations and consultants with messages to peddle that get the
same credibility in parts of the media as something a Nobel laureate might
produce. It tends to feed into popular mythology."

The consensus among economists is that the truly momentous changes in
working life since the second world war have been in four distinct areas: the
decline in manufacturing, the feminisation of work, the growth in part-time
work and increasing professionalisation of the workforce. In the labour market
projections used by the Government and compiled by the IER and consultancy
Cambridge Econometrics, all these trends are set to continue. In 1951, the
number of part-timers was 831,000. Today there are 7 million, 5.5 million of
whom are women. Between 1999 and 2010, 2 million jobs will be added to the
economy. Two-thirds of these are expected to be taken by women, while the
significant majority will be part-time.

Employment as a whole is set to grow. Currently, the working age employment
rate is 74.5 per cent, with unemployment historically low. By 2010, this will
rise to 80 per cent fuelled by growth in demand for business services,
professional assistance and personal services. But again there are subtleties.
While the increase in part-time work continues, it is feeble compared with
previous decades. During the 1950s, from a lower base, part-timers increased by
148 per cent.

Continuity has never made much of a story. But why does the widespread
perception of turmoil bear so little relationship to the statistics? Ian
Murray, a statistician at the TUC, suggests cronyism could be to blame as many
consultants writing reports on the changing nature of work are effectively
writing about themselves and those in their clique. They have an incentive to exaggerate.
"It is no good them going around saying things are going to be much the
same," says Murray. "It doesn’t sound very blue sky, does it?"

Reference

1 The Labour Force Survey, March 2002, Office for National Statistics; www.statistics.gov.uk

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