The Grauniad has some good articles on the future of work out today, and it looks like going to seven degrees of hell unless we can seriously reduce the number of people who want/need work. The latter is quite possible, but it is a social and political problem. I guess I can take some solace from being part of the solution, leaving the workforce eight years early. The issues were foreseen in the depths of the 1930s Depression by John Maynard Keynes with his piece on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes extrapolated some of the trends from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the 1930s, and increasing productivity, and figured we’d all be working less. These trends are being amplified by automation and to a smaller extent globalisation. As one of their commenters observed about automation
“Automation is fundamentally the substitution of capital for labour. The problem is that the people who already have the capital are the ones who will benefit most, because they’re the ones who will invest in the new automation.”
That, fundamentally, is why some of you are pitching for FI as soon as you can get there. Because you want to be on the side of Capital…, you want to be on the winning side of the fight 😉
Let’s take a look at some of the other issues
If we ignore summer jobs as a kitchen porter, an Ermine travelled from Technician -> team technician -> (interruption of MSc) -> design Engineer -> research engineer -> international team leader -> strategic engineering consultant-> then some period of wilderness as coder, pseudo ‘intrapreneur’1 then running into the flack and financial crisis that made me want to get out-> engineering consultant on prestige project -> right outta there
That’s roughly seven layers up the greasy pole, and it got harder as time got by, because of this delayering as well as the natural narrowing of the pyramid. I had to switch across four companies and three cities to get there. The Guardian tells me
Rather than moving up in one direction, ambitious employees will be able to move sideways, tapping into new networks
Am I the only cynical bastard who reads this and thinks, well that’s fine and dandy for the company, but WTF is in it for the ambitious employee? Sideways moves come with sideways pay. I heard a load of this bullshit at The Firm in the latter years where they were thinning out the management structure, the aim of one prize prick was only six levels ‘twixt the lowliest employee and the CEO. As a result we had line managers trying to manage over two hundred people at some point. Be that as it may, the ambitious employee does get to broaden their experience, true, and in places like London where you can find enough other places to work this may be showing up as a positive force because you take this and sell it to another firm for the pay rise you didn’t get in the sideways move. Look at the career progression the ONS shows for younger cohorts (I am roughly the middle track)
It seems to indicate career progression is much faster now. So maybe it all works out all right in the end, although it doesn’t really square with Merryn Somerset-Webb’s commentary on the extent of the welfare state or indeed nearly five million households on working tax credits2. If the ONS chart is really adjusted for inflation as it claims then all I can say is that inflation adjusted real money doesn’t seem to stretch anywhere near as far as it used to 😉 It’s the old saw – luxuries are much cheaper now while essentials like housing and childcare have gone up like a bastard…
“Large organisations have a huge challenge in attracting the millennial generation to come and work for them. Those people expect much more entrepreneurial environments – more freedom to operate, less control,” says Philippe De Ridder, co-founder of the Board of Innovation, a consultancy firm
Philippe, me old mucker, I don’t know what you’re smoking at the Board of Innovation but it must be good and I bet it isn’t legal. Out there in the real world some of those poor bastards from the millennial generation are working on London for bugger all, otherwise known as interning, because presumably these large organisations are struggling to attract talent so they have to pay….boom..tish….nothing? The Guardian offers internships here and some, though not all are even paid these days 😉
Another piece of the interning pie is this sort of thinking:
Van der Mersch argues that there are career development opportunities for cloud workers, with many startups using the site as a way of testing out freelancers to see if they’re a good cultural fit before offering them a permanent job – and vice versa.
There’s already the interesting concept of a permanent job at a startup – over half of startups fail within the first five years making the permanence a moot point. I learned some things with that Web design stuff, in particular that people who want you to work for free will never pay you properly. True character will out…
Not all of us want to be startup entrepreneurs
There’s a much larger social perspective here, which is what do most of us want to do with our lives? Do we really want to give so much headspace to working, or do some of us want to turn up, do a reasonable day’s work and then go home and do something with the rest of our lives, you know, all the way from having children to maybe doing something other than work? How the hell have we come to this ugly pass where earning a living takes up so much nervous energy and angst, in what is a rich First World country? Now some of it is due to globalisation and the fact that two thirds of the world (the Communist countries and what used to be known as the Third World) were largely outside the capitalist system, and now this has changed the water is finding its own level. Living standards in the First World will have to fall until they meet rising living standards elsewhere. That’s not enough, IMO, to explain all of what’s happening to labour. Some of the problem is increased mobility and communications. A hundred years ago if you were the carpenter in your town you didn’t have to be the best for 200 miles around, just the best for 20 miles around and you’d have a lifetime of work. Whereas now if you want to grok code for Google, you’d best be among the upper reaches of the bell curve compared with people in a radius of five thousand miles. There are no middle-level regional search engines.
The gig economy is all right for some and not for others
I’m with Lucy Kellaway on this FT article – one of the biggest issues about freelancing is that a lot of it isn’t about the work, it’s about getting the work.
You are forced to become a one-woman sales team, endlessly having to flog yourself — which means networking and being nice to people you don’t like much. You also have to do all your own tiresome admin and then, when your computer crashes, you have to be your own IT help desk, too.
FWIW I have some experience of running a separate company, I ran a modestly successful web design operation on the side for a few years. But what I above all else hated about the job was selling and finding new business, and in the end I wound it up when a large customer moved their work in house. Some of us just don’t want this endless fight. Being a startup entrepreneur is a fantastic story and it’s great for some people – but I’d put that number of people at a lot less than half of us.
For a contrary view on the precariat Money Week tells us that yer average self-employed geezer is on £50k p.a. It’s a classic example of lies, damned lies and statistics, since this assertion comes from Boox who presumably have the same supplier of marching powder as Philippe, since they are making this rosy conclusion on a sample of 1000 of the self-employed and when you ask the ONS then you find that the median income from self-employment has declined to £207 p.w or £10764 p.a. Nice creative use of sample bias, Boox. Presumably the self-employed army of Avon and Betterware and Kleeneze reps who infest my letterbox with their worthless tracts to get enough self-employment income to claim tax credits rather than be mentally tortured for being unemployed under the DWP sanctions system don’t need Boox accounting services 😉 Roll on the universal income if only so that I will be able to find the odd real letter among the blizzard of multilevel marketing material one day.
That’s the trouble with working from home opportunities. If you need someone to design the business for you, you’re always going to be on the bottom rung at best. Part of the reason is encapsulated in the Google strapline for that link
Working from home is a great option if you want to spend more time with your children.
Trying to process self-employed statistics is always going to be the devil’s own job because of the wider range of forms of self-employment. Presumably the Government will move an Ermine from the ranks of the economically inactive – a slightly offensive term for a beast with investment income of a significant part of the NMW, to the ranks of the self-employed though I will still be virtually catatonic in terms of hours a week worked. The only information HMRC collect is the total earned in the tax year – it’s irrelevant if I earned that in five minutes of frenzy or 220 days of getting a pittance for twelve-hour days.
History is written by the winners
Part of the trouble is the narrative is being written by the winners in this fight. From Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar
She says: “My father had one job in his lifetime, I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time.” Does she think that is that a positive thing? “Well,” she says, “it seems strange to me that we would always recommend to companies that their revenue streams are diverse, yet for individuals, the smallest and most fragile economic unit, we say: you must only do one thing all your life. What a crazy way to live; 87% of people in full-time employment are not passionate about what they do. When I look at this new way of work, I think of it as opt-in. It gives people economic agency, it puts them in charge. And it gives them flexibility. People love those things.”
Well, she would say it’s all great – because it’s great for her. There’s something to be said for diversification in income streams, and for those with the temperament, go for it. I can say from personal experience working a job and a bit is a lot harder than working one…
The narrative sounds great from Robin’s lips. Maybe not so great from the huddled masses working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts. Now we should ask ourselves why we encourage many people into higher cost lifestyles such as having more children than can be paid for with the wages their talents can command , and then mentally torture them using the DWP sanctions system when they fail to find the jobs that aren’t there for their abilities/time commitments. The Quiet Man IDS thinks this is a failure of process and 14 day warnings are the answer. There’s something to be said for George Osborne’s more direct approach of limiting benefits to families with up to two children; it may be unpopular but it is at least honestly straight between the eyes and aims to fight the fire before it starts. Either way these are not concerns for the likes of Robin – after all people have agency, they’re in charge and have flexibility, so that’s all right then. Me, I’d want to be on the side of Capital in this fight rather than Labour. The battle between the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object ain’t gonna be pretty.
Work is increasingly always-on in a random way
The 1990s dream of being able to work at home with phones and remote access and what-have you happened – in a big way, from the Blackberry email appliance to the smartphone. But it was a gun that fired on both ends, it seems, because it corrupted the meaning of the working day too. Once again, that’s great for the startup, and the entrepreneur – that technology lets you look a lot bigger than you really are. It also facilitates the zero-hours contract and a pernicious leakage of work into time that once upon a time was clearly off the clock.
There’s a secondary problem in that a lot of work nowadays is terribly hard to qualify whether it is done well, and many of the political issues that ERE described in his post about careerism start to raise their ugly heads.
The difficulty of qualifying a job then runs up with bullshit metrics that focus on process rather than intent. This delightful piece of management theory gives us DWP setting targets for the number of the unemployed sanctioned, because presumably some pipsqueak has prior knowledge handed down on tablets of stone that x% of claimants are taking the piss. I’ve no doubt that many well be, but nevertheless the point of the DWP isn’t to turn down the claims of x% of applicants, it is to evaluate the claims and pay up if they meet requirements. If we are spending too much on unemployment benefit than that is the job of Parliament to fix – by paying less, by paying under fewer circumstances or whatever. The setting of job performance targets to process statistics by incompetent gits who don’t understand statistics, the inherent variability on small sample sizes and who are fetishisers of tickboxery is making a lot of jobs needlessly crap with a misery of micromanaged metrics.
Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.
H Thomas Johnson, Lean Dilemma, 2006
That’s all very well, but in the case of the DWP as so often the managers set the targets on an internal marker. Even the Harvard Business Review concedes the problem as applied to CEOs
Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.
We pay the blighters more and get less for it. As the guy said
if we measure just what’s easy, we’ll maximize just what’s easy.
The Ermine is introverted, it was already picked up at school that I was not a team player – I never have been, and never want to be. I believe that the finest engineering work is had in a duel with the laws of physics and the constraint of engineering without the incessant background flapping of lips, although like all things balance is needed, I won’t go as far as to say every man is an island. And I was able to work with and lead teams, but it probably is true to say I did my best work alone or with fewer than two other people. Success was identifiable in innovation, in faint signals pulled out of the noise and the success of projects and their teams.
It’s absolutely at right-angles to the current correct business thinking, which is all about the hive-mind and networking and collaboration – the group is the hero and individual talent and expertise is zero. The hive-mind is normative, it stamps out dissent and difference. Not in the old way of prejudice and stereotyped -isms, but in new ways. As Lucy Kellway observed, this conformity takes new forms – people in the new East London cavernous creative spaces have no space for the ugly. What really worried me, however, was that when she was making a radio programme, even the sound engineers were pretty boys. Engineers aren’t meant to be pretty. When I worked for the BBC, this wasn’t the case, you could immediately tell Production from Studio Engineering in the Television Centre bar – as soon as you got in the door and looked round 😉
I’m glad to be out of it
To some extent as you get older you get less adaptable, and while I can use some of these methods I don’t want to live life that way, and I am lucky enough to have the choice. In one of the other good articles on this topic in the Graun Jeremy Rifkin (author of The End Of Work) opines
A lot of the change, he suggests, has to do with a transformed idea of freedom. When the older generation thinks of freedom it imagines it as autonomy, self-sufficiency, personal choice. “Freedom is exclusivity.” When the younger generation thinks of freedom, he suggests, it is no longer about exclusivity, it is about inclusivity. “For them the more networks they are in, the more social capital they establish, the more free they feel,” he says. “It is about expanding the network. This is the sharing economy.”
Partly, though, I say, isn’t it also that grim economic necessity has become the mother of all that invention, all those millions of apps? The fact is that in developed countries, that generational gap about ideas of freedom is also a glaring generational inequality in assets and opportunities.
Rifkin likens the gig economy to the establishment of common land in feudal times. “This sharing economy is reestablishing the commons,” he says, “in a hi-tech landscape. Commons came about when people formed communities by taking the meagre resources they had and sharing then to create more value. The method of regulation of these systems is also comparable,” he suggests. “If people are trusted and vouched for they are accepted as part of the sharing economy group. If they behave badly they are excluded. Your social capital means everything in this new economy.”
I read that a couple of times, and I still can’t work out whether it is the most arrant load of claptrap or there is a kernel of truth and I’m just on the wrong side of the divide. I recognise some of what he says about the sharing economy. I also recognise squarely that my view of freedom is exclusivity – the freedom to choose what I do with my time, and largely with my resources. I don’t understand the part about networks, but then I am not a cloud person, and I always ask who gains from munging my data ‘for free’. And yet I see the symptoms of this networked utopia at least – in every railway station the soft glow of smartphones reflecting off other people’s eyes. People used to think you were a nutter if you talked to yourself in the street, and I still have the urge to cross the road when I hear someone talking to nobody in particular before realising that they are on the phone yelling out details of their love life or business transactions to all and sundry.
Perhaps what looks to me like a dreadful, overweening and controlling aspect of work for employees, or a revoltingly competitive bear-pit favouring the loudest wide boys selling their wares on the freelance/entrepreneur side is simply a new generation defining new ways of being human. If it’s the latter, then it should all come out in the wash and good luck to them, I will try and stay on the side of Capital and sit back and enjoy the ride. I do wish that people would seem to be happier with the result, however. It looks like hell on earth to me, but maybe I just don’t understand the digital commons. I confess that one of the first thoughts I had when I read Paul Mason’s stuff about the end of capitalism and the sharing economy was ‘yes, but what will people eat and where will they live’ which a fellow reader took up with greater vim.
A lot of the things that are offensive about the way work is going cease to be offensive once you are financially independent. What is going wrong is the power balance between capital and labour. If you don’t need the money then the power balance swings back, you can afford brinkmanship or indeed to walk away. As my favourite 1950s ad says, the financially independent can walk tall, because they can walk away. However, it does take over 10 years of decent and continuous earnings at a pretty high level become financially independent, or several decades of still a decent level for the rest of us. It’s the dirty little secret of the retire early scene – you need to earn well to get to retire early, as well as not screwin up. Most of the narrative out there is about not screwing up, which is necessary, but not sufficient nowadays.
If you are entrepreneurial you can do that well in the gig economy, because more of the fruits of your labour accrue to you – as the old saw goes you never get rich working for someone else. It is presumably the successes who are skewing those ONS figures up for cohort earnings for those aged 21 in 1995, but at the same time the ONS figures show the reality of self employment is an average wage of less than the National Minimum Wage. If you work in finance or IT you can do it in less time too, indeed you will need to do it, because if you work in an office where fewer than a third of your colleagues have grey streaks in their hair3 then statistically you want to be FI or have alternative employment planned by the time you are twenty years from State Retirement age.
Perhaps all the non-entrepreneurs will be kept as pets by the entrepreneur winners, via universal income so they don’t all gang up against them, while the go-getters charge around like flash Harrys with bigger and bigger yachts. Else there could be trouble in Paradise.
- thank you, Guardian, for that piece of jargon/insight ↩
- See https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/423621/ChildandWorkingTaxCreditsStatistics-April_2015.pdf ↩
- based on a working life from 21 to 67, and assuming their hair goes grey around 50) ↩