The world of work is changing. David Bowen, crystal ball in hand, predicts what the future holds
CHARLES lives and works at home. He rarely strays very far from it, but makes a reasonable living selling his skills to whoever's prepared to pay for them. He has little job security, has to put money aside for his old age - but at least he has no boss to tell him when to turn up for work. Is Charles a typical worker of the next century? He could be, but he's not. He is a blacksmith of 200 years ago.

It is fashionable to say that we are witnessing the "end of work", but what is really happening is that the working patterns that have become the norm in the last 150 years have started to unravel. So what are you going to have to do if you'd still like to be in a job 25 years from now?


In industry, a handful of "multiskilled" and computer-literate factory workers have replaced the hundreds of semi-skilled operators of the past. This trend will accelerate in the future, to the point where so-called shop floor workers will be without exception technicians. These educated folk will stay as long as they feel it is worth their while - if another company (it could be in steel-making, computers, insurance, anything) makes them a better offer, they will be off. Quite likely, they will not even be on the full-time staff, but will be working on a short term contract. They will not rely on their companies for their training. Instead they will "buy" their skills from colleges, specialist organisations or Training and Enterprise Councils (if they still exist). If the government of the day wants to boost training, it will run some sort of voucher scheme to subsidise the cost.


The biggest employers in many towns are still insurance companies, whose tower blocks are jammed with clerks processing claims, by computer admittedly, but still in great centralised operations. In 20 years time these blocks will be empty. The workers will be at home, connected via the "information superhighway" to a central computer. They will do a similar job, but at a higher level: once again the skill level will have been increased. And they will no longer be employees of the insurance company. They will be freelances, selling their skills to whichever organisation makes the best offer.


The typical job pattern in the future will be rather like that of the actor's today. Anyone who has the skills will skip from job to job, though there is always the danger of a bit too much "resting" in between. Some companies will go down the same route: rather than building up a workforce over years, a firm may be formed, fulfil its function and die within a matter of months. That will not be a sign of failure - it is just that the project (building a bridge, setting up a computer system) will have been completed. Like film producers today, managers will pick a workforce with the skills they need, and disband it when no longer needed. But there will of course be companies that need to keep running as before, won't there? Retailers, for example? Well, it is quite conceivable that supermarkets will in future be warehouses without customers or cashiers. The customer will order by computer - and goods will then be delivered by freelance drivers. What about newspapers? Every journalist, bar a tiny central core, could be freelance. The civil service? Okay, I give up, it will be the last to change, and perhaps never will.

Is all this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? That depends on who you are. If you enjoy being self-reliant, it will be liberating. If you like other people to take responsibility from you it will be hell. It will also of course be hell if you have no skills. In Charles's day if you had nothing to offer (even if it was only brute strength), you starved. The same could be true in the future.