Believing in the workers

The Archbishop of Canterbury believes portfolio working is no kind of job for a person of integrity. He’s right – up to a point

Not since the days of William Temple during the Second World War has there been an Archbishop of Canterbury who has taken more than a passing interest in working life.

In Temple’s day, the themes calling for Episcopal outspokenness were unemployment, industrial strife, and squalid working conditions. But now, in some thoughtful, but tantalisingly imprecise remarks made during an interview with The Times, it appears as if the current incumbent of Lambeth Palace also has profound concerns about his generation’s work habits. Rowan Williams has portfolio working – the gathering of brief, shallow contracting relationships with an array of employers – in his sights.

The problem with “the portfolio approach”, he believes, is that it introduces “a sort of fuzziness about personal identity and personal integrity” into life. Younger people pursue short-term achievements and “assume that is how life is likely to be”.

“It is often said – I think with some truth – that the short-term job and the short-term relationship go together,” he says. “The short-term job and the short span of attention go together. How do you actually build, long-term, a life which has… interiority and resonance? You don’t do it just by bolting on little bits of spirituality to the edges. You have to think about the taking of time, how we understand time, the time we’re given, the time of our lives.”

Williams points out that he is not pining for the return of the ‘job-for-life’, adding that he is glad to get away from ‘the oppressiveness’ of that time. But he does regard portfolio culture as “a problem that requires recognition”.

Church House says the archbishop has no immediate plans to elaborate on this theme, which means, unfortunately, that his comments are going to be interpreted.

What I think he is getting at is that the nature of portfolio-style projects militates against building a life of trust and wholeness, lowers personal responsibility, and means that human interactions lack stability and depth. To put it in crasser language, portfolio working risks turning people into flaky shape-shifters.

Williams’s remarks are of a different order than what is usually said about portfolio working. Normally, there are two camps. The first – shared by loaded downshifters and a certain type of gormless, grinning management expert – is that portfolio working is all about choice. They will tell you its about opting out of the soul-deadening rat race, doing your own thing, freedom, becoming ‘me plc’, and so on. The other camp – inhabited by melancholy economists and anxious liberals – is that portfolio work is better explained by lack-of-choice. Satisfactory employment options dip in certain sectors of the economy, and the lonely, itinerant ranks of portfolio workers witness a corresponding rise.

The extent of the opposition between these two schools is probably overdone, yet I doubt either camp has ever given much attention to the idea that portfolio work may destroy the quality of human interaction.

The word ‘integrity’ comes from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness, and suggesting unity. It is easy to see how the kind of chameleon-like behavioural adjustments necessary to satisfy different employers – ‘client-centricity’ as the modish have it – might not be conducive to a strong, solid sense of personal identity.

As a long-term freelancer, I think I understand what the archbishop means. It is an active danger, but, as with any job, you compensate for its shortcomings in other ways: friendship, family life, non-work interests. However, if portfolio work is going to be a recurring theme of his tenure at Canterbury, his insight might also benefit from a few refinements.

First, there is a lively debate about the true extent of portfolio working. High levels of traditional employment and uncertain data about the trends in self-employment have cast doubt on the idea that huge numbers of people are turning their back on the conventional career. Certainly, Charles Handy’s dazzling prediction in The Age of Unreason of a large pool of temporary labour that companies can call on to meet fluctuating demand has yet to be realised. So far, portfolio working remains a relatively obscure phenomenon.

Second, what Williams refers to elsewhere in the interview as “classical patterns of employment” are in reality nothing of the sort. The type of work common during the era of post-war stability, of plugging away at the same old thing for a whole career, has not been humankind’s historical experience of work. The ‘corporation man’ of the 1960s and 70s was arguably something of a historical freak. The modern portfolio worker has much in common with the jobbing artisan of the 17th and 18th centuries, if you swap a modem for a hammer.

Third, it is not quite right to think that informal equals short-term, or responsibility-free. All portfolio workers I know depend on one or two very long-term relationships – longer than most staff contracts – that account for the bulk of their work. Furthermore, few actually see themselves as being a hired gun, whose interest in a particular project lasts only until the money dries up. Many work casually precisely because they feel their professional pride is better served this way than by working in-house. Employees have no monopoly on care.

It is for such reasons that one wonders if the Archbishop of Canterbury’s real target is not portfolio working in particular, but aspects of working life in general: the short-termism, the falseness, the sickly emotion, the lack of loyalty, the one-sidedness of the employment bargain. Here, there is fuel aplenty for any engaged episcopacy.

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