Is the world of work working?

Some economists expect unemployment to top the 2 million mark for the first time since 1997

All UK governments since 1979 have placed more emphasis on the role of people as consumers than as producers

Jobs only capture the headlines when they are being lost. In the good times, the hot topics are sex, celebrities and shopping. Now that unemployment has broken the two million barrier, work is back on the radar. Seventies-sounding phrases like “Labour Force Survey”, “claimant count”, “strike action” and “job centre” are re-entering the lexicon.

February saw the biggest monthly jump in joblessness since 1971, with 138,000 people joining the dole queue. Government ministers have issued a uniform “we feel your pain” message. But their discomfort is real enough. A huge part of Labour’s success story has been a benign jobs market. High unemployment is supposed to be a Tory speciality. “Full employment is not just slipping away,” says John Philpott from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “It is sinking without trace.”

So when Alain de Botton, the multi-talented philosopher, publishes his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, next week, there will be plenty of people feeling pleased to have any work at all. De Botton’s musings on various kinds of work may seem tangential, or even indulgent, to those facing the deeper sorrows of worklessness.

This would be the wrong reaction. The return to the horrors of unemployment is doing more to highlight the central social, economic and psychological importance of work in our lives. Us Brits have a particular habit of pretending to loathe our jobs – Thank God It’s Friday, etc – but perhaps we’ll pipe down a bit now. We might even work a bit harder.

The lengthening dole queue is not only forcing a revaluation of work, but of pretty much everything else. Time magazine, in its latest “10 Ideas Changing the World Today”, suggests that we’re rediscovering the job as the most valuable asset a person can have: “In this new era, a predictable salary is more appealing than the chance of scoring big with bonuses and stock options.”

Back in 1995, Gordon Brown committed Labour to creating “full and fulfilling employment”. Until the world changed in 2008, much of the debate around work has focused on the second half of his goal, on what are sometimes seen as “soft” issues: work-life balance, meaning, camaraderie, flexibility.

On the face of it, the Siberian economic climate could freeze all these issues out. But this does not seem to be happening. A book from 1970, What Color Is Your Parachute? – which is about finding the right job for your own wellbeing – is back on the US bestseller lists, just as their unemployment level breaches eight per cent. “Why are people rushing out to buy a book that talks about more meaningful work?” asks the author, Dick Bolles. “They’re realising they have to rethink work if they’ve got no Plan B. It reframes the whole issue of, ‘What type of work am I willing to do?’ “

De Botton must be hoping that a similar effect will boost his book sales. He points out that most of us are still working at jobs “chosen for us by our 16-year-old selves”. For him, rethinking our working life is part of a broader project to cultivate a more reflective society. Among his many activities, the philosopher-pundit has helped to establish a new School of Life in London, which provides courses for people looking for more interesting and sustainable lifestyles. So far the recession has done nothing to dent demand for this 21st-century university.

Rahm Emmanuel, the Chicago politician acting as chief of staff to Barack Obama, has said that it is a crime to “let a crisis go to waste”. He was talking about political opportunities. But the combination of an economic downturn, credit crunch and environmental catastrophe does suggest the need for a new way of approaching economics, politics – and the labour market.

“Work has captured the public imagination again,” says Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, which campaigns for better work. He points out that work and employment have dropped way down the public radar in recent years. “None of the newspapers have employment correspondents any more,” he says. “Even the Financial Times recently abolished a dedicated staff position.”

All this may be about to change, of course. More importantly, a debate about what we want from our work is likely to begin. The question is not just whether we’re in a job, but whether work itself is working. Noël Coward reckoned that work was “more fun than fun” – but that remains a distant aspiration for many. So while we urgently need economic remedies to improve the rate of employment, it is vital to create good work, too. The labour market does not exist solely to provide labour to capital; it also performs vital social functions. Good work has three central ingredients: it is purposeful, sociable and empowering.

Work which connects the worked to a broader objective is much more valued, in the long run, than boring well-paid shuffling around of paper or money. Those City traders retraining as teachers have got some serious adjusting to do, but the pleasure of doing useful work will outweigh the more short-lived thrill of the Porsche.

One of the most recycled stories on the management circuit is of the Nasa cleaner who, when asked by a visiting bigwig – perhaps even a president (JFK or LBJ): “What do you do?”, answered: “I help to put men on the moon.” This story may well be apocryphal, but it is a perfect example of a worker seeing a clear connection between their day job and the organisation’s overall purpose.

The need for a sense of accomplishment explains why the myth of Sisyphus is so terrible and compelling. Because the rock simply rolls down to the bottom of the hill, his “work” makes no difference. Public servants drowning in paperwork end up similarly disillusioned and resentful – the school head doing the annual report for the inspectors is the 21st-century equivalent of Sisyphus.

As well as purposeful activity, good work provides a social community. One of the best predictors of job satisfaction is the answer to the following question: “Do you have a close friend at work?” Our workmates are just that.

In the management literature there has been an upsurge of interest in “social capital”, the glue that binds organisations together. In a downturn it is tempting for bosses to clamp down on breaks and staff gossiping by the water cooler, but these social ties are what keep the ship afloat. So never, ever cancel the Christmas party.

Good work also gives more power to the individual. All UK governments since 1979 have placed more emphasis on the role of people as consumers than as producers. Consumer choice and power are crucially important. But so too is the need for control and power in the workplace; after all, it would be a serious shopaholic who spent more time on the high street than at work.

Organisations which give employees a real stake in the business create better working conditions but also more sustainable growth. For many years, politicians have lined up to praise John Lewis, the retailer owned by its employees, without doing anything serious to encourage others to adopt the model (indeed, the changes to Capital Gains Tax in the 2007 budget clobbered the employee-owned sector). Now though they should be looking again.

Last year the John Lewis Partnership made a £280 million profit, and every single employee – or partner – got a bonus of 13 per cent of their salary, about seven weeks’ worth of pay. Work being conducted at Demos on models of the firm shows that when workers have a real stake, productivity rises by at least 10 per cent, job satisfaction rises, absenteeism drops and corporate behaviour improves.

Just as important, employees have a real say in the running of the firm. Once this would have been dismissed as a harmless, small-scale exercise in workplace democracy. Now it looks a lot better than the fragility of the stock-owned, greedily led plc.

Why has employee ownership been rejected by Peter Mandelson as a model for the Post Office? He seems to be adopting Thatcher’s TINA view: “There is no alternative.” But here is a golden opportunity to push a better business model, at precisely the moment we are looking for alternatives.

People losing their jobs face severe social and emotional problems if they end up out of work for a year or more. This matters economically, of course. But the scar of unemployment cannot be measured in pounds and pence.

“We’ve spent too long arguing for good work from a business case perspective,” says Overell. “I think we will now see that providing good jobs is in fact a social and moral imperative.” Perhaps it is a fixed, tragic part of the human condition that we only ever recognise the value of something when we’re in danger of losing it.

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos.

(source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/5024417/Is-the-world-of-work-working.html)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

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