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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The End of Work?

Every now and then in my everyday life, I’ve had the sudden feeling that I was being granted a flash of insight into the future. In the late 1960s I had access to the writings of Americans such as Donald Schon and Warren Bennis who were beginning to sketch the flexible organization of the future - the title of Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book caught the spirit of the age to come – “Future Shock”.
Personally I was rather excited by the new organizational possibilities - exemplified in Charles Handy’s 1978 book Gods of Management which contrasted the familiar hierarchic or “Zeus” (club) culture with the Appollonian (role), Athenian (task/matrixh) and Dionysian (existential) ones.
Roger Harrison was a great organizational consultant who actually beat Handy to the idea of organizational cultures but Handy packaged it better. Harrison left us a superb set of “parting thoughts”
I had established a pioneer matrix structure a few years earlier in a very large organization -. Strathclyde Region – and our Member-officer groups broke from the conventions of municipal decision-making in various ways -
· its members (middle-level officials and councillors) were equal in status
· noone was assumed to have a monopoly of truth - by virtue of ideological or professional status
· the officers nominated to the groups were generally not from Headquarters - but from the field
· evidence was invited from staff and the outside world, in many cases from clients themselves
· they represented a political statement that certain issues had been neglected in the past
· the process invited external bodies (eg voluntary organisations) to give evidence
· the reports were written in frank terms : and concerned more with how existing resources were being used than with demands for more money.
· the reports were seen as the start of a process - rather than the end - with monitoring groups established once decisions had been made.
I had another flash of insight when I read an article in the early 1980s from an American economist(Alan Schick?) about the prospects for the privatization of the National Health Service – so much so that I sent the opposition spokesman for Health a warning note……..And it was Charles Handy’s 1984 book “The Future of Work” which convinced me that the familiar contours of our world were moving under our feet – it was this book which warned us that the notion of life-long jobs was gone for ever and which introduced us to the term “portfolio life”…
There’s a nice little video here of Handy presenting his (more recent) idea of the “second curve” during which he reminds us of the discussions he had in the 1970s about the purpose of the company - and the casual way people such as Milton Friedmann and his acolytes then introduced the idea of senior managers being given “share options” as incentives. Handy regrets the failure of people to challenge what has now become the biggest element of the scandal of the gross inequalities which disfigure our societies…..

A few years after Handy’s Future of Work, I vividly remember the impact on me of Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988) - which drew on the evidence of the new information technology industries to underline the threat the future held to our notion of a normal working life….(she’s just producing another fascinating book on Surveillance Capitalism)

We have all subsequently taken advantage of the speed, choice and capacity with which we have been richly endowed by the new information facilities - but perhaps been a bit slow to recognize the scale of its consequences. Google's driver-less car and the speed with which companies such as Uber and Airbnb have scaled up brought it all home to us….But people like Frithjof Bergmann and Jeremy Rifkin – the latter with his “the End of Work (1995) were amongst a few at the time who appreciated what Handy was onto……Since then there have been quite a few books with the title “The Future of Work” – Thomas Malone (2004), David Bollier (2011),  Jacob Morgan (2014) to which I should have been paying more attention…..

But, very suddenly it seems, the scale of the impact of IT and robots on jobs previously thought safe from automation has hit people and the prospect of the majority of people living without paid work is now beginning to both excite and frighten….Race against the machine (2011) is perhaps the most famous of the books about this....
The air is thick with talk, for example, of the necessity of a Basic Income; and of the writings of both Keynes and Marx on this subject…..

It’s a book which has attracted a lot of attention and I shall give some excerpts and comments in future posts….

Update; a nice overview here of what modern work now offers far too many people......
great diagram – as well as content from an important Conference on the Digital Revolution
and an important ILO report I missed in 2015

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