Life and work in the balance

When Seamus McSporran retired this
September, his decision created a minor flurry of interest in the columns of
Britain’s national newspapers.

Here was a man retiring at the age
of 67, who had held 14 jobs on the isle of Gigha, not far from Paul McCartney’s
notorious Mull of Kintyre, who for the past 35 years had worked 15 hours a day,
seven days a week.

But this is no everyday tale of
modern workaholism, because the main reason McSporran worked all those hours
was that he did 14 jobs at once.

Indeed, McSporran must be an
unusually charming man because the 100 inhabitants could easily have got sick
to the back teeth of the sight of him. If they had children, he drove them in
the school bus in the morning. If they paid rent, he collected it. If their
chip pan caught fire it was McSporran, as the island fire chief, who ensured
the blaze was put out. If they wanted to post a letter, they would have
probably seen him at the sub-post office where he was postmaster, or bought a
packet of biscuits from the shop he ran. If anybody ever wrote to them, the
odds are that it would be McSporran who shoved the post through their
letterbox. If they had a baby, he would have registered their birth. And if
they were unfortunate enough to have suffered a death in the family it was
McSporran who organised the funeral.

This sounds like one of those
whimsical Compton Mackenzie, Whisky Galore stories about Highland life and
might therefore seem to have minimal relevance to the future of work in the
high-speed, wired world of work in the 21st century. But there are some aspects
of McSporran’s story that do say something about how we may all be working 50
years from now.

First, while few of us will be
required to do 14 jobs, many of us, as Industrial Society director Will Hutton
says, will be abandoning the structured, safe, career paths of old for a newer,
more uncertain world where many of us, like McSporran, will be working for
several employers at once. Technology will increasingly undermine the
specialisation which has been one of capitalism’s most striking features.
Widgets will increasingly be handled by robots, the power of the computer
network and the computer will make some jobs disappear while redefining others
in much broader terms. The collision of technology and the future will also
create jobs which sound like the creation of a skilled satirist.

Talent, if you listen to business
gurus such as Tom Peters, is the king, and the challenge is to make companies
exciting places to work for. In this parallel universe, the model for careers
and work now is “project management” where staff – be they temporary, permanent
or contractors– are continually having to acquire new skills, outside the
skill set which has traditionally been associated with our job.

The war for talent is already
something of a cliché but the signs are that it’s going to get bloodier, uglier
and more widespread. Demographic pressures – as we get richer, we have fewer
offspring and live longer, the economically productive workforce becoming a
declining proportion of the total population – will mean that labour shortages
will no longer be endemic in just the IT industry. Take the Government’s
childcare plans. It’s a laudable initiative, if only the number of people who
wanted to be childminders wasn’t falling slightly.

You only have to pick up a newspaper
to see the war for talent breaking out on new fronts. This autumn the police
launched a £7m recruitment campaign but since the launch the Metropolitan
Police has admitted it might recruit applicants it had previously rejected or
hire staff with minor criminal convictions, which seems to be taking the “It
takes a thief…” principle a bit far.

The Army has launched its own
multi-million pound recruitment campaign, the need for teachers has become so
acute that education authorities are trawling Australia and New Zealand, and
bankers in the City of London are being offered three-year lucrative  deals to stop dotcoms from poaching them. A
headhunter in the banking market says, “It would be fair to say that a degree
of desperation has crept in.”

The war for talent is on our TV
screens, too. On-line recruitment agencies are rife, with names such as
totaljobs, Top Jobs and Easy Jobs (we’d all like one of those). Log on and
you’re bombarded by slogans like, “Are you getting the job you deserve?” And
who among us is going to be modest – or realistic – enough to answer “Yes” to
that question? We’ll feel honour-bound to create our own career management
account where programmed search agents go out and find jobs that match our
skills (assuming we’ve not told any porkies when we filled in the
questionnaire) while we’re asleep. A better job – and therefore, is the
not-so-subtle implication, a better life – is only a few clicks of the mouse

Karen Morris, HR director of
Internet services provider Globex, sees these on-line services as just the
start of a revolution. “My 2020 vision – that is, what I see for that year and
because I think this utopian vision will be accurate – is that we will all be
self-employed. I would argue that we are all self-employed now, we just don’t
realise it. I’m self-employed, I just happen to sell 100 per cent of my time to
Globex. In 20 years from now, we won’t be doing that.”

Under Morris’s vision we will all be
McSporrans. “Work will be broken down into specific tasks and allocated as a
set of specific measurable objectives. We will do only those tasks which are
our specific strengths and that work will be able to be done any time, any
place in the world, as long as the objectives are met.”

Under this model, recognisable from
existing day-to-day practice in the IT and related industries, recruitment will
become a completely different kind of process. “We will have fair selection,”
says Morris. “We won’t discriminate on the grounds of sex, race, age, or even
personality, we will know that a person has the skills to meet our measurable
objectives. But it won’t be recruitment as we understand it now, with the
traditional interview – someone will switch on their PC, tap in the skills
required to a computer database and a few minutes later we will be told that so
many people have the matching skills to do the work.” Under this system, work
will in effect be “commissioned”, as if from a freelance or sub-contractor, and
pulled together either by a computer or, more likely, a project manager with
significant help from a computer.

Is this the extreme, if extremely
logical, outcome of the outsourcing revolution? Will the company itself be
completely outsourced? Morris doesn’t think so. “You will need a core at the
heart of the company, but that core will be much, much smaller than it is now.”

But will that core include HR?
Possibly not, if Morris has her way. “My job as HR director is to make myself

In other words, the HR role will be
reduced to a core which she defines as the three Rs – recruitment, retention
and retraining – and then to transfer much of these functions to managers.

Recruitment becomes semi-automated, in
the hands of managers who look after specific jobs that need to be done.

Retention, in some ways, could
become more amorphous. For instance, you might as a company need to know if
people want to be associated, as supplier/ employees, with your brand. You
might have to offer specific incentives or advantages – for example “work with
us because we get the latest software first”.

And retraining. In this vision of
the future, Morris says this self-aware, self-employed workforce could spend
10-20 per cent of their time acquiring new skills.

What is missing from this vision,
Morris freely admits, is “Human emotion. I remember from an early business book
reading that ‘Business is simple, people make it complicated. Business
processes can be planned, human reactions can’t.’” For example, she says,
“Managers will need to develop trust and one way they’ll be able to do that is
by giving people specific, measurable objectives. It may, in part, be a
generational thing. The average age here is 28 and our people are used to
working in this way. I know one person who’s even worse than me in the mornings
and I know he has three or four specific objectives to meet by December and I
know that he will work all night to get them done.”

There is also a broader emotional
issue: how successfully will we adapt to this brave new world as human beings?
How will we, for instance, divide our private and working lives?

To return to our recently retired
one-man workforce on Gigha, the one thing that seems both horribly familiar and
futuristic about McSporran’s life is his working week. Cary Cooper, professor
of organisational psychology and health at Umist, says his annual Institute of
Management/Umist report on the quality of working life found a worrying
increase in working hours among its 5,000 respondents. “One in three worked
over 50 hours a week, one in 10 worked 60 hours a week or more and a
substantial minority worked at weekends,” he says.

More worrying for Cooper is the
evidence that the executives surveyed were not coping with their working hours
as well as McSporran seemed to. Seven out of 10 said it damaged their health,
almost nine out of 10 said it damaged their relationship with their children
and eight out of 10 said it damaged their relationship with their partner. Perhaps
the most amazing figure, which suggests just how self-defeating the current
trend for workaholism and presenteeism really is, is that seven out of 10 said
their long hours made them less productive.

Prof Cooper, particularly, is
critical of the way work in Britain is being Americanised. And it’s possible,
even from the reports in this series, to see many American practices mirrored
over here. What gurus still refer to as a “flexible workforce” has seen many
companies shed staff, outsource all kinds of functions previously regarded as
essential parts of the company and “delayer” management. The net effect, he
believes, has been to make companies more profitable while reducing employees’
motivation, adding to their stress by increasing their insecurity about their
jobs, and left many feeling that the traditional idea of loyalty to the company
as a joke. And he believes that no one, least of all the politicians, have
really thought through the implications of this shift in the way we work.

“Is the shift towards a short-term
contract, long hours and intrinsically job-insecure workplace the way forward?”
he asks. “How will this affect the health and well-being of employees? Can
organisations demand commitment from employees they don’t commit to? What will
the long hours culture do to the two-earner family, which accounts for the
majority of families in the UK?” (Incidentally, this is one milestone the UK
passed before the US where two-earner families only became the norm in October
this year). So while directors and shareholders celebrate bigger profits, for
the employees the feelgood factor may end up being replaced by the feelbad

In the US last year, employers spent
£7bn on stress management products and programmes. Translated to the UK, that
would make stress management bigger than most of our manufacturing industries.
(Not that that is saying much – there are now more people employed in the UK in
Indian restaurants than in coal or steel).

Predicting is always difficult,
especially when you’re talking about the future. But at the moment there are so
many conflicting trends. Only two years ago, the Internet was supposed to tilt
the balance in favour of small companies. Now all you hear is that you have to
be big to play on the Net. In a year’s time there’ll be a reaction to this

In Japan, the country in which
people grew up with the idea that a job for life was their birthright, the
Ministry of Labour has recently complained that too many young Japanese men
don’t want to become “salarymen” for fear they’ll become “corporate drones”. In
one survey, 80 per cent of unemployed Japanese youths said they’d either just
quit a job or don’t want one.

Some 1.5 million of them have become
“freetas”, doing mundane jobs on short contracts. The pay’s lousy – £900 a
month – and the prospects are poor but, as one Japanese youth told the Yomuri
Shimbun newspaper, “At least we don’t have to listen to all that corporate
bull.” This is the country which almost reinvented capitalism after 1945. Here
the war isn’t over who’s getting the talent, it’s about turning the talent on
to corporate life. And so far this century, it’s being lost.

When it comes to the business of how
we work, there is abundant evidence that we’re not happy with the way the
system is working now. But some of the things that we as human beings have come
to dislike about the system are the very trends which technology is going to

On the other hand, if we are all self-employed,
as Morris suggests, this could be both a liberating factor and a worry to those
who can’t manage the shift to that style of work and life.

It will, as the popular scientist
James Burke says, take time for everyone to adjust. “We have had 200 years of
the Industrial Revolution and a certain way of working. Most of the people I
know who work from home still do office hours,” he says. Which is why, although
Morris is probably right in broad outline, the future will differ in some
degree from her very rational blueprint.

Human beings such as Seamus
McSporran will ensure the future doesn’t quite go according to plan.

Five jobs you may never
have heard of

It’s their job to
make sure anarchy doesn’t break out in the back of a bus. They cannot drive the
bus, but they will be on it, helping pupils, disabled people, patients and
hotel guests find their seats, have a pleasant ride and get off safely.

just arrived in a new country without a job, home or any command of the native
tongue. Well fear not, because the local social services department has someone
whose job it is to help you. Step forward the resettlement coordinator! This
superhuman figure will help you find a job, healthcare, lessons in the local language
and may even try to reunite you with members of your family by sponsoring them
into the country.

Credentiallers: With on-line universities enabling
the ethically challenged to download a diploma at the click of a button, there
will be a growing demand for an army of people whose job it is to check that
the Oxford University you claim to have studied at is in England and not Ohio.

Utilisation review
crazy name but not such a crazy job. These people are nurses whose job it is to
review hospital and medical records to make sure that patients – or should that
be customers? – receive appropriate and cost-effective treatment.

Date doctor: Worried that you’re not making the
right impression? Then call for the date doctor! If you’ve got anywhere from
£140-£350 to spare you can go on a make-believe date and have your
conversational technique, your outfit – even your handling of the wine waiter –
critiqued by an “expert”.

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