The already frantic pace of working life is quickening as we run faster and faster simply to keep our place on the rat-race treadmill. Insecurity and fear of redundancy are driving working hours ever upwards as we struggle to keep our jobs so that we can provide for ourselves, our partners and families. Yet the harder we toil, the more our home lives are fraying at the edges. And there is no guarantee that, however hard we work, our employer will not erase our job tomorrow at the click of a computer mouse.
Yet it needn't be like this: the path to a better future is already being subtly mapped out amid the wreckage of the "job for life". Full-time employment is on the wane. Flexible working is slowly taking over. Only 31 per cent of the jobs created in the economic recovery of 1992-96 were full-time, according to the London School of Economics. A kaleidoscope of part-timers and self- employed, contract workers and temps make up the remainder. If this trend continues, workers in full-time jobs will be in the minority by the year 2010, according to the Henley Centre for Forecast-ing, a leading think- tank. "Our notion of the typical worker - the male breadwinner in full- time employment - is well on the way to obsolescence," says associate director Ian Christie. "By 2010 the typical worker will be a woman in a flexible job market, juggling during her lifetime between full-time and part-time work, self-employment and temporary contracts."
We are accustomed to regarding future working patterns as a matter of choice. In fact, the trend to flexible working appears to be an inevitable and permanent shift. Employers are all for it, arguing that without a flexible workforce they will be unable to compete in an increasingly global market. Trade unions are critical, fearing that flexibility will usher in a new era of exploitation, loss of employment rights and insecurity reminiscent of Victorian times. But the long-hours culture, and its knock- on effects on our lives, afflicts every social class and most types of worker, from long- distance lorry drivers to advertising managers running multi- million-pound accounts. And far from flexible working being necessarily a conduit for employer exploitation and worker insecurity, it could offer unprecedented opportunities for rebalancing home, family and work.
It depends how we react. Already people are increasingly questioning why they should sell their souls to companies willing to "downsize" at a moment's notice. And why should they work ever more punishing hours to earn more money if they are then too exhausted to enjoy the extra income? The work ethic is being challenged perhaps as never before, as people re-think their priorities and redefine traditional notions of success and fulfilment. As in the US, the brutal downsizing of the late Eighties and early Nineties has produced a backlash against workaholism, with people opting to swap part of their income for more time for themselves. In the US this so-called "downshifting" trend is affecting between 5 to 10 per cent of the workforce - enough to alarm the Wall Street Journal. Last year it warned that downshifters' frugal spending habits could cause a dip in the US economy.
In Britain, signs of a similar trend are emerging. Earlier this year, a Mori poll of 1,700 adults revealed that 64 per cent of full-time workers would give up their current jobs if they could afford to, while only 20 per cent said they would opt to stay at work. Already, a significant minority have gone a step further than daydreaming of escape and have carved out new ways of working outside the traditional company cocoon. They work from home, job-share, "telework" (using computer technology to work remotely from their employers) or are self-employed. Then there are the chameleon workers, who divide their time between different types of jobs to shorten the odds against unemployment. Together these people are helping to forge a new concept of work, one better suited to our fast-developing technological age.
Of course, there will be losers as well as winners, not least the hundreds of thousands of brutally downsized middle-aged workers now languishing on the dole who may never get another job. But the evidence is that most British adults not only acknowledge the new workplace trends - they welcome them. A survey conducted last year by market researchers Mintel found that eight out of 10 workers accepted that "the job for life is dead"; and seven out of 10, especially the under-thirties and working mother, said they actually wanted more flexible working lives.
Employers are, of course, playing a crucial role in forcing flexible working patterns on to often unwilling workforces. But there are also three powerful, positive forces driving this revolution.
First, new technology - once regarded exclusively as a job-stealer - is now seen as a liberating and democratising force. A new class of entrepreneurs are exploiting it to set up computer-based businesses, often for just a few hundred pounds, from their bedrooms and garages. They often find themselves servicing the organisations which previously downsized them. Many others are migrating into the booming service-sector industries, in particular tourism, leisure and complementary health.
Second, the feminisation of the workforce is producing a huge psychological shift in attitudes to flexible working. Women already fill 44 per cent of jobs. And they are expected to take 80 per cent of the 1.6m new, mainly service-sector, positions which it is predicted will be created between now and the year 2006. "Women are the new force in the workplace and they obviously want flexible working to help them achieve a better balance between career and family," says Christine Lyles of London-based management consultancy TMS. "The directors of the large companies we work with, including the Midland, TSB and Halifax, recognise that this is the future." Barclays Bank already allows branch managers to job-share and offers men and women unpaid career breaks of up to two years upon the birth of a child.
In self-employment, too, women seem best placed to exploit the new opportunities. More than twice as many women as men start up new businesses and those begun by women are more likely to survive, according to research published earlier this year by the Manchester Business School.
Third, the concept of retirement will become blurred as a growing army of healthy older people seeks to work, at least part-time, well beyond the current age of 60 or 65. Older men have borne the brunt of corporate downsizing over the last decade with 1.46m 55- to 64-year-olds losing their jobs. But older workers will soon be the fastest-growing group in the national workforce as the population ages. The number of Britons aged between 25 and 34 is set to drop by a fifth between 1995 and 2010 and the numbers aged 55 to 64 are expected to rise by 28 per cent. Already the short- termism of the downsizing scythe, which cut through middle management in the late Eighties, is being acknowledged. Major employers such as Sainsbury and B&Q are increasingly opting to employ older staff for their experience and because customers trust them. Older people, too, are likely to take up voluntary work as they live longer and find themselves with leisure time on their hands. Charles Handy, the best-selling author of The Age of Unreason and management guru, predicts that such "gift work" will become more common among all age groups as full-time jobs become ever scarcer.
Ed Mayo, director of the New Economics Foundation, a radical think-tank, agrees: "I believe we are entering a transition to a new world of work in which we will find ways of rewarding both paid and unpaid work such as caring, parenting and doing favours for others. We need to turn our image of employment on its head. To view it not as an end in itself but as a means of achieving a better quality of life."
There are sound psychological and emotional reasons why a majority of those in work appear to be increasingly receptive to this message. Average wages in Britain are now among the highest in Europe. Yet we are paying a high price for our affluence. Instead of working to live, many, if not most, people in full-time jobs (around 60 per cent of the workforce) are, literally, living to work. The average Briton works 43.1 hours a week, longer than in any other EU country. And a quarter of us put in more than 60 hours a week according to the charity Parents at Work, which lobbies employers for more family-friendly policies.
For many busy people, work is so all-consuming that their home life is increasingly organised by others. A boom in domestic service is rippling through the leafy avenues of suburbia as the Upstairs Downstairs world of nannies, cleaners, gardeners and cooks returns.
As our children know to their cost, Britain's divorce rates are the highest in Europe - and over-work is one of the most obvious culprits. Two in five British workers believe that long working hours are putting a strain on their family and social lives, according to the Mintel research. We are also more divided as a nation than at any time in the past 20 years, as the gulf between full-time workers and those without jobs or those drifting in and out of low-paid employment, widens. At the lower end of the income scale, figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal that life expectancy among semi-skilled and unskilled men fell slightly from 69.8 years to 69.7 between 1982 and 1991 - the first drop in peacetime Britain since the Victorian era. At the top end of the spectrum, most people know someone burned out by stress induced by a high-powered job. The World Health Organisation has warned that the pace and anxieties of modern life in Western societies are triggering an explosion of "lifestyle illnesses" - including cancers and heart disease - which are set to accelerate over the next two decades.
For all these reasons, many of us are probably ready to switch to a less frantic, more flexible working life. But how well will we adapt psychologically to what could be dramatic changes in our working routines? Professor Adrian Furnham, occupational psychologist at University College, London, thinks we will cope, eventually, if only because we have to rather than want to. "The conventional workplace is a prime source of social contact and friendship. Sitting at home writing e-mails does not constitute light banter, so one easily becomes isolated, atomised. People will worm their way into new networks. They'll do what retired people do to maintain social contacts - join clubs and do voluntary work."
One group of workers, which Professor Furnham has dubbed "Popos" (the Passed-Over and Pissed-Off) will find flexible working especially hard. "These are the change-phobes. They've invested so much in a particular corporate environment, have been there so many years, that they have become institutionalised. All they do is sit around and snipe at their more successful colleagues." Many of us will find the Popo a familiar figure.
Others will find themselves eminently suited to a working life outside the traditional office or factory. One such is Alan Denbigh, executive director of the Telecottage Association, who works from a log cabin in the back garden of his home in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. "When I worked in an open-plan office, people spent most of the day chatting and nothing much would ever get done," he recalls. "It's altogether more pleasant and productive working this way, and it's better for family life." Housing several computers, faxes and phones, a photocopier and a scanner, his modest cabin is the hub of the world's largest association of teleworkers. There are 2,500 individual and corporate members and sponsors include British Telecom and the European Union.
Britain has about 1.5m teleworkers using the latest communications and computer technology to work remotely from their employers or customers. Some are full-time employees, others are self-employed, based either at home or in one of 150 telecottage centres which have sprung up around the UK since the late Eighties. To give just one example doctors, based at home or in hospitals, can now direct operations or prescribe treatment via a video-conference.
"Teleworking means less traffic congestion and pollution, fewer hours sitting in traffic jams and for many, a healthier, less stressful life," says Alan Denbigh who, weary of commuting to London every day in his former job working for a software company, switched to home teleworking in 1990. "You work between 20 and 30 per cent more efficiently according to most studies," he says. "The technology exists to enable teleworking to become much more mainstream, but some employers still have this 'bums on seats' mentality which makes them suspicious of allowing workers out of their sight."
Oxfordshire County Council, where teleworking has been encouraged for several years, is among those employers taking a more enlightened view. About 250 employees (1 per cent of the total) including social workers, trading standards officers and managers, now opt to work from home for all or part of the week under the "flexi-place scheme" which evolved out of the council's commitment to reduce traffic congestion and pollution in Oxford. "It has been a success and the numbers are growing," says Hilary Simpson, principal personnel officer. "Our attitude is that it's our employees' output that matters, not bums on seats. In theory the scheme is open to anyone, although some 90 per cent of our jobs have direct face-to-face contact with the public, so I think the natural limit to teleworking in our organisation is about 10 per cent. In knowledge-based organisations, the potential is much greater."
The council provides laptops to teleworkers who don't own their own computers and installs business lines at home for those who need them. "The benefits have been more to do with reduced staff turnover and increased office motivation than saving office space," says Hilary Simpson. "There is still some scepticism. It threatens some of the traditional badges of status and it breaks up hierarchies. But we try and keep it simple and use a light touch."
Many of us undoubtedly still fear this new world of flexible work. We equate it with insecurity. Yet full-time employment is only as secure as the boss's next deal. The minority left in full-time jobs may have to work ever harder to avoid the fate of their downsized colleague. But that same downsized colleague may now be thriving in the flexible economy, particularly if they have extended or brushed up their skills in the meantime. Gradually, full-time employment is losing its allure and its aura of security.
However, the support systems are not yet in place to cushion the transition by millions more adults to a new flexible world of work. New formal and informal networks will be needed for people working in isolation outside traditional offices - such as the "employee mutuals" envisaged as a kind of job agency, union and insurance organisation rolled into one by the think-tank Demos. Equally crucial, as the Low Pay Unit and others have pointed out, is the need to raise part-time work from its present Cinderella status, full-time's poorer sister, not least by bringing part-timers under the protective umbrella of the proposed minimum wage. This would outlaw the well-documented exploitation of part-time workers who earn wages as low as pounds 1.50 an hour. Unions, too, need to drop their outdated rhetoric about the paramountcy of full-time employment if they are not to become the dinosaurs of the new era. To survive they will need to expand their role to become network and information centres.
However we deal with the new realities, we will never be able to wish them away. The line between home and work life is blurring as new technology makes where we live less relevant to our working lives. The descendants of people who flocked to the towns and cities in search of work in the early 19th century are beginning to return to rural areas and are helping to rege- nerate their economies. The pre-industrial wheel is beginning to turn full circle.
In tomorrow's world of work the traditional career path, like the job for life, will be the exception rather than the rule. Yet, if we get it right, the future flexible landscape could offer many, perhaps most, of us an escape route into a saner, less frantic way of living.
"We are reverting increasingly to a world of jobbing workers, moving from one employer or customer to the next, working for or alongside a new super-elite of well-paid but stressed-out full-timers," says Ian Christie of the Henley Centre for Forecasting. "There are some good reasons not to fear such changes - more freedom, more flexibility and a better balance between work and home life. But the support structures really need to be there in order to help people make the transition. Otherwise, only the dynamic will thrive."
As a UK director of the Warner Bros' entertainment empire in the early Eighties, Geoff Grimes was every inch a prototype Yuppie. "I was a Cockney who happened to make it. I had a lovely office at the company headquarters in Soho. I had my own leather chesterfield, a drinks cabinet, my own conference table." But it was also a highly competitive, stressful lifestyle. Office politics were taken seriously by pretty well everyone; apart from Geoff.
Soon after a new boss arrived, Geoff left. The two had not hit it off, and Geoff felt that the new regime was not for him. He opted to leave, and headed for the Welsh borders in search of a more satisfying and meaningful way of earning a living. He found it when he met Sue, who became his second wife. Together they started The Poppy House, a bed and breakfast-cum-cafe in Bishops Castle, a small town nestling in the south Shropshire Hills.
"Sue is so down to earth, such a realist, such a grafter, she just gets on with life," says Geoff. "It was she who saw the potential of the house for bed and breakfast, with a cafe at the front - I hadn't."
The business doesn't earn anything like the money Geoff used to earn as a rat-race executive but he's never been happier. "I meet people in the cafe who are on holiday, or city workers on trips from Birmingham or Manchester, who identify themselves by their cars and their clothes as living and working in the fast lane. They often sigh: 'If only we could do this', so we say to them: 'Well, why don't you?' They just shrug. You see the despair in their eyes. I think they're frightened to change."
Yet many people have caught the downshifting bug. According to a survey last year by the Henley Centre for Forecasting, between 1994 and 1996, 6 per cent of people in paid work voluntarily cut their income in order to improve their quality of life. An equal proportion said that they planned to do so over the year ahead.
Many more dream of downshifting - 42 per cent of those in full-time employment said they would go part-time if they felt they could afford it.
For Geoff Grimes, life has never been better. He works hard, but has plenty of spare time: "I am very happy now, more excited about what I am doing than ever. I am doing what I enjoy. When I was climbing my way up the career ladder, I would have to say to my managing director, 'Can I ... ?', when I wanted to do something new. Now I just say to Sue: 'Shall we ... ?'"
Mark Francis-Jones was severely injured in a car crash the day before he was due to start army training at Sandhurst. Doctors at the spinal injuries unit where he was treated warned him that his employment options would be severely limited in future. "I said 'Bollocks to you. I'm going to do whatever I want'. They took such a blinkered, cliched attitude towards my disability."
It was while studying for his BTech in business and finance during his post-accident rehabilitation, that he became skilled in computing. He soon realised that it could actually lead to stimulating and flexible work that would allow him to be his own boss.
Now, aged 27, Mark runs - sometimes from bed - Britain's first interactive website jewellery retailers from his home near Oswestry, Shropshire. "The Internet is the ideal medium for me to market what I sell. I am paraplegic, and I use a wheelchair. Because I have wasting in my lower limbs, I have to rest for some time each day, but I can use the computer from my bed to send and receive e-mails, process orders and to phone them though to the suppliers."
Mark's top-quality, hand-made gold and silver jewellery sells for a fraction of high-street jewellers' prices, and by using the latest technology, buyers can browse through photos of his range of 300 pieces on screen before placing their order by computer, fax or phone. One year after starting up the business, he's looking to recruit 20 freelance sales staff.
"Computer technology offers huge scope for people with or without disabilities, who need or want to work from home," says Mark. "My overheads are minimal. It costs me pounds 60 a quarter to maintain a website, and the phone bill is the main additional outgoing. I have no salaries, staff, insurance to pay, so that's how I keep the prices down."
People with disabilities are increasingly using technology to earn a living from home, but so too are the able-bodied. Teleworking and telecottaging centres help all sorts of people to get work. "In Lanarkshire, former steel workers are using video-conferencing to link up with employers in Wales for job interviews. There's a textile designer who displays her products over the phone line to customers in Italy," says Alan Denbigh of the Telecottage Association. "It's opening up new markets to businesses and customers, who could be thousands of miles apart and would never otherwise have made contact."
Mark Francis-Jones' website is at http://www.francismarrack.com
"But you'll lose your Mercedes!" exclaimed Teresa Wick-ham's horrified mother when her daughter, then one of the most senior women in the supermarket trade, announced that she was giving up her job. One year later and her mother is eating her words. Working from home as a freelance communications consultant, Teresa has almost doubled the already high income she enjoyed as Safeway's director of corporate affairs. She is also happier and healthier.
"I have regained control over my life and the stress-related chest pains I used to suffer have vanished," she confides during a break from harvesting apples in the orchards her husband Robin farms at their home in Matfield, near Tunbridge Wells. "My friends keep telling me I look 10 years younger. How can I have any regrets?"
After six successful years at Safeway, and as she approached her 50th birthday, Teresa decided she wanted to work from home. Exhaustion from a 5am to 8pm working day - including a three-hour commute around the M25 - and anxiety at the lack of a proper home life, crystallized into an urgent desire to escape. "It was a big risk for me to take as my husband's business, apple farming, is a bit like playing Russian roulette, and I'm the one who pays the mort-gage. I left with only some consultancy work at Safeway lined up and gave myself a year to make it work. Luckily it has."
Today, she still works a five-day week, often burning the midnight oil as a consultant to the chief executives of Safeway and four other food- related businesses. But she has more quality time for her husband and can enjoy leisurely walks with their dogs.
There is, she admits, a downside to working for yourself. "I may earn more on paper, but without the company umbrella I have to worry about things like a pension and the costs of running an office from home, telephone and fax bills and so on." She is also acutely conscious of a persistent cultural prejudice that freelancing and home-working is somehow second- class work. But as one of a new breed of self-employed professionals - which includes accountants, lawyers and alternative health practitioners - who work just as well from home as a company office, she considers herself "ahead of the game."
"People bring me in to help solve a problem and then I'm out again without all the office politics and stress. I'm convinced that jobs like mine, working for several different employers, will be the future for many people, perhaps even the majority."
Lucy, 27, is the epitome of the late-Nineties workaholic. A high-flier at an American investment bank, she spends 11 hours a day at her City desk selling European equities to institutional investors. She starts work promptly at 7.15am and collapses in bed by 9.30pm - unless she is out at a restaurant entertaining clients. She winds down by visiting an acupuncturist or cranial osteopath.
Lucy, who asked us not to reveal her surname, is philosophical about the hours: "We all sign nine to five contracts, but if you stuck to that you couldn't possibly do the job properly. Some of the clients I talk to have pounds 20bn invested in the European market and I have to be on the ball from first thing in the morning. If you're not on top of the job there are no second chances."
She admits the pressure occasionally gets her down, but claims the intellectual and financial rewards (she declines to reveal her salary) more than make up for it. "I get a huge buzz from being surrounded by such smart people and working in such a fast-changing environment," she says brightly. "It really is an enormous challenge."
Unlike many City colleagues, Lucy has also managed to keep her weekends just about sacrosanct, usually spending them with her fiance, at their seaside cottage in Sussex. In fact, her present 55-hour week is a doddle compared to her previous work schedule at the rival investment bank from which she was headhunted. "Where I am now they have a very creative, human approach to the job. At my previous job my boss told me he wanted me to stay longer hours but for no good reason. A colleague told me it was just a question of putting in more 'face time' at my desk because I was young. It was exhausting and totally unnecessary."
The hours Lucy works, and her acceptance of the punishing workload, are typical of today's upwardly mobile twenty- and thirtysomethings. In America, career women are spending longer at work and, according to research by sociologist Arlie Hochschild of Berkeley University, Califor-nia, many of them actually prefer the office to the pressures of home life and caring for children. In Britain, one in five women of Lucy's generation will choose never to have children; some have gone so far as to be sterilised to avoid an unwanted pregnancy getting in the way of their careers.
Lucy does want to have children - sometime in the distant future. She originally envisioned a future in the much gentler world of publishing. Does she ever regret her choice of career? "Absolutely not. I love it."
After six months of pottering around garden centres, decorating their house in Coventry and taking day trips, Mo Haynes and her husband Bob got bored with retirement. For 20 years, the couple had jointly managed pubs, but both had to give up the work they enjoyed when, two years ago, he reached his 60th birthday. But Mo, now 58, is back working again for B&Q, the DIY retail chain. The company encourages applications from the over-50s, and has no enforced retirement age. Its oldest employee is 83.
"Most companies don't want to know you if you are over 50, so it's refreshing to work for one that values older people, and the experience they can bring to a job," says Mo. She started part-time as a telephonist at the company's new warehouse in Coventry and now works full-time on the refunds desk. "You have to be a bit of a diplomat in my job, partly because customers are not always 100 per cent honest when they're returning goods.
"If I've got something heavy to go back on the shelves one of the younger staff will take it and I learn a lot from them about using the computer. I was terrified of the computer at first, but now I'm as quick as anyone. Then, the younger ones often come to you for advice about how to deal with customers, and it's very satisfying being able to help them."
B&Q began its pitch for older workers in the late Eighties to avert a labour shortage caused by the declining birth rate: the age group projected to grow the fastest in the UK workforce over the next 50 years is the over-45s. But the policy became a hit with B&Q's customers too.
"Older people are more likely to be home-owners and to have done DIY themselves," says Jim Hodkinson, company chairman and chief executive. "Their knowledge and interest in DIY, and DIY products, is likely to be higher than in younger age groups. More mature employees are also likely to have a different perspective on what constitutes good customer service. We often find that they spend more time helping customers with their queries."
Although her husband has found a part-time job, doing security and office work for a caravan company, Mo thinks there is still a long way to go before most employers wake up to the value of recruiting older workers.
"I feel very lucky, and I've no plans to retire," she says. "There may come a time when I want to change my hours - if I felt that working full- time was too much - but I wouldn't dream of just leaving. That's the beauty of working here. You can opt to work as many hours as you want."
Five years ago John Berry was earning pounds 70,000 a year as retail information technology manager for Boots. Today he divides his time and expertise between several companies but with one crucial difference: his services are free.
Dismayed by the ferocious corporate culture which swept Britain in the Eighties, John chose to get out while the going was good. After 27 years with Boots, he resigned at the age of 53 to look after his daughter Christine, who was then aged five, while his wife June began a career late in life as a com-munity worker.
Today, Christine is 10 and her father, ironically, is as knee-deep in paper as ever. He divides his time between house-husbanding at their Birmingham home and a bulging portfolio of unpaid work, mostly for community-based and ethically driven businesses.
His commitments include doing the accounts and administration for Apna Style, a business chaired by his wife, which makes traditional Asian schoolwear; active chairmanship of the Out of This World chain of co-operative organic food stores, and a directorship of Traidcraft, Britain's leading fair trade company.
Out of This World is the only client who pays John a fee but he ploughs it straight back into the company as shares. "There's no contest between Boots and what I do now," he says. "Helping organisations whose ideals and philosophy I share is so much more rewarding."
John is a perfect example of the gift worker, a new phrase for old-fashioned voluntary work coined by management guru Charles Handy. In his best-selling book, The Age of Unreason, Handy suggests that a radical new "portfolio" approach to employment will become the norm as full-time jobs become ever scarcer. Gift work, done for free outside the home for friends, charities and communities will, he predicts, increasingly sit alongside paid and household work as leisure time increases and skilled people look for new ways to employ their talents.
John is all for such a transition, but believes it remains a long way off. He points out that he, June and Christine live comfortably on the pounds 30,000 a year they get from his pension and her salary, thus allowing him to work for free. "Not everybody has that luxury," he says. "I'd like to think that attitudes to unpaid work are changing, but the pressures of working life are now so great that many people don't have time for voluntary work. Their main priorities are family and hanging on to their jobs." !
The book Downshifting: The Guide to Happier, Simpler Living, written by Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones, is available to Independent on Sunday readers at the special discounted price of pounds 5 (recommended price pounds 5.99), including post-age and packing. To order one, telephone 01235 400400. The first 50 callers will receive their copies absolutely free.Reuse content