Finance: All change for 21st-century workers

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The Independent Culture
Despite huge changes in working conditions over the last 20 years, with ever fewer workers in `jobs for life', financial services companies have been treating people with `unconventional' careers as second-class citizens. But all this is about to change, writes Roger Trapp.

For all the talk of innovation and world standing that surrounds it, the UK's financial services sector has been slow to cotton on to the fundamental changes that are affecting society.

The end of the job for life, the increasing trend for employees to work on fixed-term contracts and the like have all been widely discussed in recent years - and yet banks, building societies and insurance companies appear to behave as if most people are still embarked on a steady upward climb through the world of work.

Manpower, the employment services company, is one organisation that has attempted to deal with this situation by treating the people it supplies to clients as its employees, and arranging deals with financial services groups in such a way that they can obtain mortgages and other services. But most people who do not have a "conventional" career still feel like second-class citizens when it comes to dealing with this sector.

Slowly but surely - at about the speed of a typical bank queue - things may now be changing. According to a report published this week by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, financial services suppliers are waking up to the issue.

The paper looking at how the sector should respond to people's changing financial needs is a follow-up to a seminar held as part of the RSA's Redefining Work Project. Senior figures - not only from the financial services sector but also from the Government, academia and public policy bodies, attended the event in September that aimed to add to the debate taking place throughout the world on the subject of shifting the welfare burden from the state to the individual.

Shonaid Jemmett-Page, partner in charge of risk-management services at KPMG, the global accountancy firm that sponsored the report, said: "There are no simple solutions, but the RSA's seminar showed many senior people in the British financial services industry are alive to the size of the challenges their industry faces, and are ready to lead constructive debate."

Indeed, Valerie Bayliss, author of the report and director of the RSA project, added that the financial services sector was "beginning to think through the extent of changes in working lives and incomes and the implications these will have for businesses which are directly reliant on the income streams of millions of individuals."

Her report points out that the industry "still thinks in terms of products, not people", and adds that it must adapt, or accept that new players with a clearer focus on the customer will emerge.

In addition, though the Government threatens new legislation and regulations as well as a shifting of the burden of the welfare state, the sector "is not yet ready to respond with a programme of ideas of its own" - again because it is not near enough to its customers, claims the report.

Finally, the sector needs to build up trust and improve relations with its customers - possibly by educating them, for example by making financial literacy part of the National Curriculum.