MM 2001: Labouring under an illusion

December 21, 2000

Headline-grabbing predictions about changing patterns of employment have proved wide of the mark. Peter Nolan argues that before we can get a handle on tomorrow, we must reconnect with the past.

The future of work, the world of work, if you believe the prophets, is in flux. Some, such as Jeremy Rifkin, who recently predicted the end of work, believe that the secure jobs and stable careers that characterised paid employment in the past are fast receding. They cite evidence of growing insecurity, manufacturing decline and a burgeoning informal economy to support their claims that employment is in freefall. But not all visionaries are so gloomy.

Optimists offer the prospect of a developing new economy that is focused on the exploitation of intangible assets. The dull, dreary and degrading jobs that stifled millions of working lives under the old economy are, they say, fast becoming a distant memory. Work will become more challenging, creative and rewarding, free from the conflicts of the past and more securely based in the community as vibrant clusters of technicians, managers and entrepreneurs combine on a project-by-project basis.

These radically conflicting views about the prospects for work share a tendency to map a future that is built on a restricted understanding of the past. The stock reference point is the period of economic renewal and rising prosperity that took root in the advanced economies in the 1950s.

With men dominating the paid workforce, employment was predominantly full-time, permanent and located in expanding private and public-sector organisations.

The giant factories in engineering, pharmaceuticals and steel - for many a leitmotiv of paid work in this period - enforced a rigid separation of home and employment and reproduced in the workplace social divisions that separated manual and mental labour, worker and boss.

By the late 1970s, the forces that had shaped employment patterns after 1945 were in retreat. Radical shifts in political and economic strategy, economic globalisation and the quickening pace of technological change produced major shifts in the regulation, rhythms and rewards of work.

The trade unions, which in the late 1970s boasted more than 13 million members in the United Kingdom, once held a pivotal role in regulating pay and employment. But their position, thereafter, was undermined by a concerted onslaught by government and management on a scale not witnessed since the general strike.

The power shift that ensued was dramatic. The corporate downsizing, re-engineering and change-management programmes initiated in the UK, the United States and elsewhere transformed work patterns and precipitated the stress, insecurity and job losses that form the backdrop to the present debate about the future of work.

The pundits' predictions notwithstanding, it is clear that the future will reveal far more complex and uneven patterns than have hitherto been highlighted. For some, probably a minority of the labour force, work may become more flexible, creative and compatible with the improved work-life balance that so many desire. But for others, including many manual and service-sector employees, the dreary and humdrum routines of the past will remain a fact of life. Identifying lines of continuity, as well as change, in employment patterns is thecritical task.

The evidence already shows that the predictions of the end of work, authority relations and a lifelong career are seriously wide of the mark. The representation gap in employment relations has been confirmed by recent evidence tracking movements in employment relations over the past 20 years. Most employees are not members of trade unions and have limited means of representation. Increasingly their pay, terms and conditions are determined unilaterally by their bosses.

In many organisations, in both the public and private sectors, command-and-control systems of management remain firmly entrenched. In the US, recent estimates suggest that more than 17 million people are employed in the corporate sector merely to supervise the work of others. While the number is much smaller in the UK, the proportion, at about 10 per cent, is still alarmingly high and far higher than for our partners in Europe.

Employment growth does not appear to be concentrated in areas of creative and high-tech business, but rather in the low-wage, routine and unglamorous occupations that structured working lives in the early part of the 20th century.

The fastest-growing occupations may well be connected to the growth of internet businesses, but the priority list is dominated by shelf-fillers, warehouse keepers, drivers and telephone operators. Aside from these areas of growth, statistics reveal substantial growth in the proportional share of prison officers, nursery nurses and domestic housekeepers.

A key contemporary paradox concerns the coexistence of rising stress and insecurity and the stubborn durability of employment structures. Although there has been substantial growth of part-time, agency and short-term contract work, four out of five employees in the UK are still engaged in permanent positions.

Job tenure rates (the time an individual is employed with an organisation) have scarcely changed in the past 20 years, and a third of the workforce has been with the same employer for ten years or more. Temporary work has remained static and the incidence of multiple job-holding, the essence of the army of portfolio workers that has been so long predicted, has stalled at about 5 per cent of the workforce.

If these puzzles are to be solved by researchers in the UK and elsewhere in the world, three conditions will have to met. Breaking out of the straitjacket of existing disciplinary boundaries is one important step. Developing a new political economy of work is essential to counter the ungrounded predictions of the visionaries. And, crucially, the researchers will have to reconnect with history.

"Back to the future" may be an overworked metaphor, but it embodies an essential truth. It is vital that we make sense of past upheavals in the rhythms, relations and structures of work if we are to understand the challenges and uncertainties of the future.

Peter Nolan is director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme.

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