Economists become so focused on the detail – each new twist of the data, every cryptic statement by some central banker – that they tend to ignore the seismic shifts that are taking place in the world economy. But now something is happening here in Britain, probably more quickly than in other economies, that is the changing way in which we work. There are five related changes in the UK labour market that taken together constitute a true revolution.
One is the rise in self-employment. This has been rising steadily over the past three years and is now nearly 15 per cent of all workers. Second is the rise in part-time working: more than 8 million people are now working part-time compared with 21.4 million full-time. Next is the rise in home-working, both among the self-employed and the employed, which on average in the UK accounts for 13 per cent of the workforce, with more than 15 per cent in the South-west and South-east of England. Fourth comes the rise in incorporation: people working for a company they themselves have set up. The figures for self-employment exclude these, so the number of self-employed is actually even higher than it appears. And finally there is the rise in people working beyond normal retirement age, some 930,000 at the latest count, up more than 100,000 over the past two years.
Of course, not all these changes are voluntary. Some of the self-employed are people made redundant and who cannot find another job. A lot of part-timers say they would prefer a full-time job if they could get one. Some home-workers might well prefer to go to an office if that were practicable. And many would-be retirees are continuing to work, not because they want to but because their pensions are inadequate.
But while I don't think we should glamorise these changes, I don't think we should demonise them either. For many, the more flexible lifestyles will be a liberation: freedom from the drudgery of commuting and the need to fit in with a disagreeable employer. For others, it will be an insecure and worrying life: having to cope with pensions, taxes and all the other things an employer would normally do, as well as finding customers who will pay them to do the work.
Nothing is forever and we should not assume that this shift to more flexible working practices will carry on in a straight line. But some aspects will continue for another generation at least, notably the rise in people working beyond normal retirement age. I suspect, too, that the move towards home-working will carry on, as technology makes this more practicable. People still have to meet from time to time, so the home becomes the factory, while the office is a club.
The idea that we will be divided into core workers and portfolio workers was first developed by Charles Handy, and was sketched in his book The Age of Unreason back in 1989. People would spend the early part of their careers as core workers, learning skills and building contacts; then they would move to a portfolio lifestyle, with a range of different activities. But that was only available for relatively few. What has happened since then has been the revolution in technology, which has transformed the process – and with it our lives.