Back to the future of work

So, one more time: what is the future of work? The question arises because we are now at something of a crossroads. During the 1990s and beyond, there were many millennial predictions about the end of work, the decline of the job, and the rise of the “footloose, independent worker – the tech-savvy, self-reliant, path-charting micropreneur” (Daniel Pink, Free Agent Nation, 2001).

Many famous names were associated with such views – Charles Handy, William Bridges, Jeremy Rifkin. It was melodramatic, edgy, popular – and utterly unconvincing as a realistic description of the future trajectory of work for most people. Intriguingly, many of the chief proponents were and are themselves portfolio workers – ie, people moving from job to job.

But more recently there has been the deeply impressive scholarship of the Future of Work programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Its largely tenured academics have told a completely different, more sober story – stressing continuity, the slow pace of change, and that secure employment has never been the historical experience of workers.

The programme has emphasised that self-employment and micro-businesses are insignificant sources of work. The ‘proper job’ with an open-ended contract, whether full-time or part-time, is the norm, and job tenure is actually on the increase. Yet the content and nature of these jobs may indeed be experiencing something akin to a revolution: people management has stormed the workplace, while more jobs now revolve around the labour-intensive business of managing relationships – contact-building, teamworking, networking.

The competing camps make some wise criticisms of each other. The portfolio pundits say the academics place too much faith in official labour market statistics, and so go too far towards a message of stability. For example, the term ’employee’ may apply technically to people who have set up their own business, and pay themselves a salary from it, when in practical terms they are self-employed. And can you describe a job at a fast-food chain as permanent? The state’s categories of work have not yet caught up with the ways people are actually working, they insist.

The tenured trend-watchers say the pundits make wild claims about change without reference to previous episodes of labour market change in history. Punditry is unrestrained by theory or evidence and is propelled more by a marketing-derived need to make striking prophesies and build a brand.

But what is missing in this room-emptying spat is what brought everyone into the subject in the first place: what is the future of work?

Try this. The employment relationship – the brute fact of dependence, as it has been called – will remain the basic building block of work for most people in developed nations. Employers will continue to want to employ people, and not just organise the work of contingents, because that is still the most productive, most efficient, arrangement. The UK is more than ever a society of jobholders.

What is more, high-paying jobs will grow faster than low-paying jobs, as they have been doing. The ‘race up the value chain’ is real enough, but in the process it will continue to create an hour-glass society of winners and losers.

Yet power still lies principally with employers, with the old master-and-servant principle still alive and well (viz Gate Gourmet). Greater autonomy for workers in their jobs comes with greater control, of the electronic or cultural variety, exerted by employers. To work is to be vulnerable: organisations have power; workers, on the whole, do not.

However, it may well be that a number of forces are coming together to, slowly but surely, undermine the cultural pre-eminence of the traditional nine-to-five job, and the classic two-way employment relationship.

People are more prone to vary their patterns of work over their lifecycles – going part-time while rearing children, for example, or winding down in late middle age. The spread of new technology has made other forms of work easier: work-time is thus progressively losing its meaning, as is workspace.

In addition, organisations are much more diverse. Labour can be assembled and dispersed quickly for a specific project, hence the existence of the virtual enterprise. What is more, we are living in the age of the subcontractor and many individuals now work in complicated network arrangements, where no-one is quite sure who is really calling the shots.

In some ways, workers are more homogenised than before with millions of us poking at computer terminals all day long, all going to ‘start’ when we want to finish, and so on. But this outward similarity does not capture a more fundamental feeling that ways of work are actually more varied than they were, and the meanings of work correspondingly diverse. For many people, it’s about the wage packet, as ever. For many in the fast-growing professions, however, work holds out the possibility of affirming their very existence. In the language beloved of sociologists, labour is increasingly ‘disaggregated’.

The future of work is, in short, the permanent job. But it’s a different kind of job from the post-war sort. It’s a job being nibbled at by other types of work, a job with blurred edges, a badgered, restless, mutable kind of job.

Admittedly, this portrait is a half-way house – an attempt to please all sides, to ditch the one-dimensional rune-reading. And who knows? In a year or two, we may be much more worried about unemployment.

But never mind – it’s the future I’m backing.

Stephen Overell has given you his opinion. But what do you think? Tell us your views: How do you think we will be working in the future? E-mail

Comments are closed.