Futurology? Check out the small print

Futurology is in fashion. Almost everyone it seems wants to peddle views on
the shape of things to come in the workplace. But though entertaining, most of
this futurism suffers from a serious flaw – an inability to provide a robust
account of work as it exists today.

Many an influential guru has built a lucrative reputation on a misreading of
job trends. Classic examples are those who have over-hyped the future of
portfolio careers and teleworking. Official estimates of the share of
teleworkers in total UK employment range from 1 to 5 per cent. Anecdotal
estimates put the figure at around a quarter, but this hardly points to a
revolutionary shift in practice. Likewise, with the share of self-employment in
the workforce having fallen slightly to around 11 per cent in the past decade,
portfolio working has stalled at the level to which it soared in the 1980s. So
while people with portfolio careers have become a handy addition to the
economy, contrary to business school mythology they are not growing in number.

Another over-simplification is the "end of the job for life".
There has been barely any change since the mid-1970s in the average length of
time people stay in a job. And though part-time and temporary staff represent a
major component of the flexible labour market, three-quarters of workers still
work full-time while 93 per cent are on permanent contracts, with no sign of
any seismic shock to work patterns between now and 2011.

Ironically, a new breed of futurologist is now emerging, armed with such
facts to subvert the forecasts of more traditional gurus. Sadly, however, these
trendy guns are no less error prone. The current vogue is to challenge the
prevailing image of work as ever-changing and stressful, replacing this with a
depiction of relatively stable and satisfying workplaces which people should
come to appreciate. "Don’t worry – be happy" is the message. But this
underestimates the forces of change affecting workers.

The content of jobs is being transformed at a faster pace than people change
jobs – hence the perception that jobs are not as long-lasting. And ongoing
business restructuring results in a regular outflow of workers who struggle to
keep up. This is evident from redundancy rate data that have remained constant
since the mid-1990s, even though the economy has moved back toward full
employment. Those in the firing line of change are unlikely to be smiling on
the job – especially if their boss has yet to read the latest guide to
effective people management.

The moral is to study the small print the next time you pick up a futures
forecast. If you can’t trust what it says about today, don’t believe what it
predicts for tomorrow.

By John Philpott, chief economist, Chartered Institute of Personnel

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