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"More unemployed people would have found jobs since 2010 if the government's high-profile, multi-billion pound Work Programme had never been invented, according to an influential committee of MPs."
How long will it be before this government realises the nature of work has changed beyond recognition?
As I wrote in 2010......
So the Chancellor, George Osborne, has announced the details of his Comprehensive Spending Review and although the blows are being softened by spreading public sector job cuts over the life of this parliament, many will be culled with few people being chosen. Those people who will find themselves in the court of the unemployed, in which there is no chance of appeal, will ask questions. Where and when will I find another job? Where will I live if I can’t pay the rent or mortgage? How long can I last before signing on? How will I keep the lights on? When will things get back to normal? They have. This is the new normal.
But there is hope and there are alternatives but to exploit them, we’re going to have to see the world of work through a completely different lens, a world that has been impossible to perceive during the good times by workers and especially by the government. That lens can be defined by a single statement; the unit of work is no longer a whole job. The nature of work in the developed world has changed forever and the prospects are particularly grim for middle class, white collar workers, so called knowledge workers that form the largest group of those people directly affected by the cuts.
The perfect labour storm
In the past fifty years some 1.5 billion people have been added to the global labour pool setting up what has increasingly been described as the perfect labour storm brought about by the wholesale offshoring of work to low wage economies. This isn’t just about factory and call centre workers. It’s about lawyers, medical specialists and the entire category of knowledge work. Research by Professor Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton University, suggests that somewhere in the region of 40 million jobs will be lost in the West across 817 categories of knowledge work within a generation. In 2008, 1.4 million qualified people applied for jobs with one of India’s largest IT services company, Infosys. In Japan, Yuji Genda, Associate Professor, Institute of Social Science University of Tokyo published a book in 2008: A Nagging Sense of Job Insecurity. His research predicts that only one in two people will be employed in Japan in the year 2050 if current trends and policies prevail. Earlier this year research in the US predicts that all new jobs are being created by start-ups. Recently IBM announced it would make almost 300,000 employees redundant and hire them back as freelance workers between now and 2017, although the political backlash it created forced them to retract the strategy. In any case, the fact that many companies are thinking this way should send a powerful message to knowledge workers. Big firms and the government aren’t hiring and traditional jobs in advanced economies are not coming back anytime soon.
The new permanent temporary worker
In January 2010, BusinessWeek published an article on the new permanent temporary worker in which it describes the story of a home based call centre worker living in the US who handles customer enquiries for consumer brands managed by a service provider called LiveOps. She logs on in the morning for 45 minutes then takes her child to school and returns to work for another couple of hours. She is paid by the minute, in this case, 25 cents per minute. Last year Odesk, a kind of ‘eBay for work’ service that brings together buyer and sellers of ‘knowledge work’ had 350,000 workers registered and a value of jobs posted of $285 million and during the credit crunch grew by 400%. The founder of LiveOps is starting a new ‘on-demand’ workforce service called ReadyForce. The UK equivalent, PeoplePerHour.com has 68,000 experts and a £13 million value of jobs posted. The nature of work is increasingly fractional. Fractional workers derive their income from multiple sources online and offline. Unfortunately public policy is still based on the assumption that careers are the most desirable form of employment, and that they can be offered to more and more of us.
The government’s Work Programme initiative aims to provide services to white collar workers who’ve never had to look for a job until the onset of the global financial crisis. Job centres refer these workers to private service providers, contracted by the government to help them prepare for another whole job. These service providers such as MyWorkSearch, CareerPlan4Me and many others are funded by the government to provide online tools to help white collar workers in a way local job centres can’t, others like The Plus Team provides an offline service that at least gives job seekers an opportunity to receive group coaching and network with each other. The problem is these services guide people to prepare for whole jobs that simply don’t exist.
We’ve seen weak, modest ‘whole jobs’ growth in the UK but tellingly, ‘the quarterly increase in total employment was mainly driven by part-time workers, which increased by 166,000 on the quarter to reach 7.93 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992’. Charles Handy (The Empty Raincoat) and John Malone (The Future of Work) were right after all in that where in the past an organisation was like a castle, it will become more like a condominium: "an association of temporary residents gathered together for their mutual convenience". This may take a generation to play out and the transition will be painful but the net benefits to individuals and society in the long term are far greater than those provided by traditional modes of employment.
The support economy
A promising new approach to harnessing the value of knowledge workers is being pioneered by Odesk, Mob4Hire and many others, inspired by the ground breaking book, The Support Economy that has predicted the shift from ‘managerial capitalism to ‘collaborative capitalism’. These platforms enable individuals to form virtual companies that can provide services to any business anywhere in the world that in some categories can actually be cheaper than offshore labour because it can be provided on-demand. It can be switched on and off. With the right so called ‘deep support’, advice and guidance, knowledge workers in Britain can adapt and indeed thrive but need to realise that a ‘career’ has ceased to be a feasible way to organise working life. To adapt to new ways of working, knowledge workers need to prepare for, and seek out multiple sources of income. More than this, they need to realise they’ll get better support from each other than from the institutions that are supposed to serve them. They need to learn how to create value by collaborating to bring products and services to market that compete head-on with big brands. They need to view work as an instrument of self-development and personal autonomy and entrepreneurship not as a status symbol, but as an attitude. An attitude everyone’s going to need.