Last month the prime minister Tony Blair delivered a lecture to several hundred of the UK’s leaders in the field of HR management. Surrounded by artefacts from the Industrial Revolution in Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry, he presented his views on the future of the UK workforce.
The lecture was part of a series in which Blair has been outlining his vision for the future of government and the UK as he prepares to stand down as prime minister.
Past topics have included criminal justice, public health, social exclusion, science, community cohesion and defence.
Blair began by describing how the labour market had changed in the 10 years since he came to power. He said that where once the debate was about unemployment and the despair of the jobless, it was now about personal fulfilment in work, and human capital as the determinant of corporate success.
“It is time to put ‘work’ back at the centre of the political debate,” said Blair. “The debate more recently has been about work-life balance.”
But he emphasised his belief that ‘work’ and ‘life’ should not be regarded as entirely separate entities. “The assumption is that work-life balance is about a balance between ‘work’ – the necessary drudgery to keep hearth and home together – and ‘life’ – which is about personal fulfilment, pleasure and contentment. In fact, for many people… part of our fulfilment [comes from doing] work that is fulfilling, exciting, interesting. We don’t see our ‘work’ in one compartment and our ‘lives’ in another. Work is part of our lives.”
For Caroline Waters, director of people and policy at BT, this was a particularly important element.
She said: “At BT we don’t prescribe certain kinds of flexibility. We keep an open and honest dialogue with our employees to constantly reassess their working needs.
“Their personal or professional circumstances may change at any time and this potentially means changes in the way they can access work. Flexible working opens up the business to possibilities that could not be achieved in a more rigid format, and allows BT people a greater balance between work and life.”
Blair went on argue that, with an economy that has been increasingly focused on service provision, involved a greater number of older people and women, and was driven by communications technology, the role of the state had fundamentally changed.
He said the role of the state was not to interfere with the market, but to equip the employee to develop and to contribute to this new economy. To do this, businesses would need to become ever more involved in the provision of education to our young people, he said.
“The rule now,” he said, “is not to interfere with the necessary flexibility an employer requires to operate successfully in a highly fluid, rapidly changing economic market. It is to equip the employee to survive, prosper and develop in such a market, to give them the flexibility to be able to choose a wide range of jobs and to fit family and work-life together.”
At the same time as encouraging scientific innovation, the government would have to recognise the increased relevance of soft skills to the 21st century economy, he said. Furthermore, there needs to be a shift away from the relentless focus on qualifications and towards an appreciation of the value of wider skills learning, Blair argued.
He concluded that, just as companies were increasingly personalising their products and services to individual customers, so the state will need to provide personalised services to individual citizens.
It was a wide-ranging lecture that touched on many aspects of the future UK workforce.
But for Joe Goasdoué, chief executive of the British Quality Foundation performance improvement organisation, there was one glaring omission.
“While there were repeated references to employers, there were none to managers, or management generally,” said Goasdoué. “I’m sure he would say that the terms are interchangeable, but it is one thing to employ people and quite another to manage them.
“If we as a country are to achieve the things that the prime minister described, we will need to develop and maintain a high level of management capability.”