Dear Charles, you were wrong

“Dear Charles Handy,

I am too much of a coward to go punditing about the future, so a bit of me has always admired the chutzpah of anyone who could envision what the world will look like 10 years hence.

During the mid-1990s, this admiration was frequently called on as commentators sparred with prophesies of vanishing jobs and bleak visions of life in the disposable workforce. The other bit, though – let us call him ‘the inner bureaucrat’- was never quite so sure. He spent his reading hours spluttering: “Well, we’ll see about that”, and “But?”

Now I find myself wondering whether the bureaucrat wasn’t the fellow with the foresight – hence this letter. Looking back, don’t you think you freaked everyone out a bit too much? Don’t you think you owe us a kind of apology?

You are not alone. The other day, I got round to reading a famous book that was published in 1995, called The End of Work, by Jeremy Rifkin – I’m sure you know it. This argues that technology will delete humans as a major factor of production and lead to lengthening dole queues across the developed world. “For this reason,” he wrote, “finding an alternative to formal work in the marketplace is the critical task for every nation on earth.”

Maybe in 50 years he will be found to have been prescient. But at the moment, it doesn’t look likely. Unem-ployment in the US (his primary concern) currently sits at 5.4 per cent – not fabulous, but better than it was in 1994 (6.6 per cent), and the 1980s average (7.3 per cent).

But the reason you are the subject of this letter, and not Jeremy Rifkin, or, for that matter, any one of a dozen lesser job-thieving divines, is that you always stood several notches above the crowd. It is not just that you are a better communicator, or a more generous-spirited human being, but your thoughts are bigger, too.

It is impossible to imagine any other guru (‘social philosopher’, if you insist) arguing as you did in The Elephant and the Flea (2001), that people should use their skills to their own advantage, rather than the advantage of indifferent companies by becoming ‘fleas’ (or self-employed in old money). You are, in short, sufficiently different, but sufficiently representative of that phase of 1990s futurology, to be worth the scrutiny of inner bureaucrats everywhere.

It is 10 years since The Empty Raincoat was published, which I think was your most significant book. I re-read it again recently, and all the old admiration came flooding back. The way you tell it, it seems patently obvious that the future would indeed see ‘traditional’ employment evaporate, a large expansion of self-employment, more micro-organisations, and more temporary labour.

“Before very long, having a proper job inside an organisation will be a minority occupation,” you wrote. “What was a way of life for most of us will have disappeared. Organisa-tions will still be critically important in the world, but as organisers not employers.”

My complaint is that I do not think this stands up a decade on. Parts of it may have been borne out – self-employment has been rising since 2002. But there are fewer self-employed people now than there were in 1990. And the number of start-ups has been increasing slightly every year since 1995 – though again, almost as many go out of business, too.

Yet, far more importantly, other strands of your vision appear to me to be plain wrong, or at least going against you. There are now record numbers of staff in the UK. Strikingly, since 2002, it is the full-timers, rather than the part-timers, who are behind the sharpest recent growth.
Meanwhile, the number of temporary workers has been falling since 1997. In 1994, temps accounted for 6.8 per cent of all workers. Today, they account for 6.2 per cent.

None of this would matter much if it merely concerned the contents of old books. But instead, what happened was your vision of work jumped into the real world in a very vivid way.

Perhaps more than anyone else, you contributed to the intellectual atmosphere that pervaded working life during the late 1990s. The messages you put out about work assumed the status of an orthodoxy, as managers intoned: “There are no jobs for life anymore”, believing they were telling workers a painful, but necessary new truth. That ghastly phrase became a means for employers to crack the whip, subdue dissent and justify mass redundancies.

It seems weird now, but in 2000, the TUC released a survey that found that the UK was second only to South Korea in the number of workers who felt insecure. I wonder if anyone would have felt differently if they had known that, in 2004, studies would be reporting that long-term relationships at work were back in vogue? That crazy pendulum, eh?

I am not suggesting for a minute that you are responsible for the actions of others, any more than Christ is to blame for the crusades, or Marx for the Gulags. But I am saying that, so far, your predictions are looking shaky, and that in retrospect, you seem to have spooked us unnecessarily with dangerous phantoms that never materialised. The future of work was not unlike the past.

‘Apology’ is too strong a word, so how about a more bureaucratic one – ‘clarification’, perhaps?

Yours, in admiration,

Stephen Overell”

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