Work - who needs it

Women and Work in Modern Britain - Flexible Employment - From School to Work
November 13, 1998

Julia Brannen and Peter Moss assess views on changes in global employment.

A major challenge to post-industrial societies is adaptation to the increasing pace of economic change. This increased pace of change is, Richard Sennett and others have suggested, considered normal and is woven into everyday life; it is increasingly accepted as the way life is supposed to be. As a result, the future of work is ever more uncertain.

The race to maintain a competitive edge in globalised markets is an imperative closely associated with the themes of these three books. From School to Work is a comparative analysis of the institutional aspects of education and vocational training and the links with young people's occupational destinations and social class. Flexible Employment is a presentation of evidence of the changing world of work in Britain. Women and Work in Modern Britain combines an overview of recent changes in the structure of women's employment with a discussion of the theories and concepts which have been developed to explain them.

The empirical evidence presented in From School to Work comes from 13 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries: Japan, Israel, Taiwan, United States, Australia and several European countries including Britain, France, Italy, and Germany. With contributions from leading sociologists, the book also sets out to examine some key debates and theories about the links between qualifications and jobs. The editors invited the researchers in the different countries to examine general theories by analysing national large-scale data sets. The national chapters also go some way toward discussing school-to-work transitions in the context of specific national labour market developments.

As with most comparative analysis concerned with social and economic change in post-industrial society, the book argues for and offers evidence of both commonalties and differences - across and between societies. The theories which the editorial introduction addresses concern the specificity, standardisation and stratification of systems of education and vocational training. Drawing upon notions of different types of "spaces" into which young people in the different countries move, two ideal types of school-to-work transitions are posited: "qualificational spaces", characterised by specific vocational qualifications with which young people embark upon their occupational careers, eg in Germany and Switzerland; and "organisational spaces" where education is predominantly general or academic and where vocational skills are learnt on the job or in courses taken after leaving school, eg in the US, Britain, and Japan. It is argued that educational systems embedded in qualificational spaces tend to be highly stratified in that they maintain a clear distinction between academic and vocational tracks. By contrast, organisational spaces vary in their degree of stratification.

This picture of school-to-work transitions is further complicated by the degree to which young people enter tertiary education and the individual countries' policies to extend or limit education. Israel, Taiwan, Japan and the US are well in the lead here, where between one third and one quarter of younger cohorts have gained post-secondary qualifications; the four countries at the bottom of the league table are France, Germany, Ireland and Italy (Britain ranks just above France).

When it comes to the results of education and vocational training, it seems that in two of the countries with highly specialist and stratified education systems, Germany and Switzerland, a university degree virtually ensures entry to the middle classes. In Britain the chances are very much lower. Despite the importance government is placing upon increasing the pool of graduates, 26 per cent of graduates did not acquire higher-status occupations on leaving university.

From School to Work provides some empirical insights within the narrowly defined education-work field which are interesting if not theoretically illuminating.

Flexible Employment has more limited ambitions. Shirley Dex and Andrew McCulloch seek to analyse the concept of flexible work and to ask several specific questions in relation to Britain. What are flexible jobs and are they inferior? How are they distributed? How do they relate to employment and unemployment? Are they set to increase in the future? How does Britain compare with other countries? Flexible Employment is also based on secondary analysis of large-scale national data sets, in this case the Labour Force Survey and the British Household Panel Study. The authors pertinently organise their empirical analysis in relation to four theoretical levels: the labour market, the individual worker, the household level and the national, comparative level. The book also poses the critical question as to the beneficiaries of flexibility - the employer or the employee? These issues are essentially treated as empirical questions with little discussion of theory. Yet Flexible Employment manages to present complex empirical data concisely and coherently in a straightforward style.

One of the book's many useful contributions is to demystify the term "flexibility" and to make distinctions throughout between different kinds of flexible work. In practice, flexibility covers a wide spectrum: self-employment, part-time, temporary work, fixed-term contracts, contracts with different types of hours, seasonal work, home working, tele-working, job shares etc. As to distribution, there are few surprises: women far outnumber men - mainly because one half of women still work part-time. However, part-time work is also shown to be growing among young and older men and women. In addition, self-employment (for both men and women) has grown, together with fixed-term contracts and second jobs.

The book contributes to the mounting evidence of a polarised pattern of employment among men and women and at household level. The authors find that flexible work is associated with joining and leaving the labour market. Among young people not in full-time education, there are important gender differences in the kind of flexible work, with young women more likely to enter part-time jobs and young men to enter temporary jobs. Those who are employed while being in education - both young men and young women - are highly likely to be in flexible jobs. So too are men who move into retirement or leave work because of ill health.

Perhaps the most striking evidence concerns the fact that recorded insecurity does not measure up to the high level of felt insecurity. In this regard, it is relevant to note the authors' mention of methodological problems which lead to the under-reporting of flexible work as people forget to report temporary jobs, fail to report second jobs and perhaps are unclear about the implications of their employment status. Even so, three-quarters of women and one half of men are found to have held a flexible job at some point in their working lives. Moreover, what many of these jobs have in common are poor conditions of employment. Not surprisingly, Dex and McCulloch conclude that flexibility better serves the interests of employers rather than employees.

Flexible employment is one of the many threads woven together by Women and Work in Modern Britain to provide a comprehensive picture of women's evolving position in the labour market. Rosemary Crompton also reviews the different theories - structural, individualist and post-structural - which have emerged over time to explain "women's work" and the persistence of gender segregation and inequality in the labour market. The role of state policies, too, is explored using cross-national comparisons. The clear style, chapter summaries and expertise of the author make this an invaluable source of reference for students and anyone working on gender in labour market issues.

Despite its brevity, the book adopts a wide perspective. Compton links economic change to growing concerns about social order and social control. Although focusing on women, she recognises that employment change is not unproblematic for men, while expressing "guarded optimism" about changes in the division of labour between the sexes. She confronts the need for redistribution of work from households with too much work to those with too little and addresses the "time bind" that afflicts a growing number of parents as paid work and child-rearing become ever more concentrated on women and men in their "prime working years", from 25 to 50.

This linking of the economic and the social needs to be taken further. Recent books by Arlie Hochschild and Richard Sennett pose troubling questions about the social and personal consequences of current forms of economic change, including certain types of flexibility, the short time-frame of modern organisations, the pressures to intensify work and an increasing predominance of management 'bottom line' rationality. As Hochschild observes wryly, no one ever has the epitaph: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." Children are still treated as invisible or shadowy dependents and as obstacles to the "proper" working of the labour market, rather than as active human beings with agency, citizenship and interests of their own. Even Crompton's excellent book makes no reference to the emerging and very relevant field of childhood studies. There is no mention of key sociological debates concerning individualisation which dominate sociological thinking in the field of youth.

In recent years we have been lulled into a sense of fatalism, becalmed in one of those periods of history where people come to accept that, in Margaret Thatcher's words, "there is no alternative". Yet the current crisis (or blip?) in capitalism, combined with growing concerns about environmental degradation produced in large part by a predatory consumerism, are producing new questions. To the questions of management - how do we adapt to change?, how can we compete? - are now added what are the social costs of competition, flexibility and inequality?, what sort of world do we want for ourselves and our children? Thinkers with breadth of vision are needed to help us articulate new possibilities and new relationships - between countries, between capital and labour, between women and men, and between the generations.

Julia Brannen is professor in sociology of the family and Peter Moss is professor in early childhood provision, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education.

Women and Work in Modern Britain

Author - Rosemary Crompton
ISBN - 0 19 878096 6 and 878097 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £.50 and £9.99
Pages - 155

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