Jobs for life are still rife

Choose your job carefully, and you could find yourself there for a very long time, says Stephen Overell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I consider myself a clock-watcher of above average docility, so the modern world of work has come as something of a blow. It is the expectation of pushy dynamism that has been particularly galling. The world of work has a vision of its citizens as people cheerfully jumping from job to job all the time, hawk-eyed for opportunity, thrusting for more cash, a fatter package, a snazzier car with doors that have that, you know, opulent thud, and extra-fluffy towels at the executive health spa.

It expects people to behave towards their working lives like Anglo-Saxon thegns behaved towards territory and brides. They must be ready to butcher for the sake of a hill or a hut, a promotion or a contract. This view has been expressed with unceasing regularity for the last 10 years or so in a little phrase that most people probably find rather irritating, but to me has been more like agony - the "job for life is no more".

To take its place, according to received wisdom, is something called the "new psychological contract". Because, um, the job for life is no more, workers must frantically hopscotch from task to task, doing a bit here and a bit there; maybe they have several things they do, maybe they just make do, but either way they must always be looking to boost their "employability". And restlessly onwards.

Happily, I am not entirely alone in suspecting a degree of mythology about the sudden, tragic and untimely death of the job for life. "Flexibility has become so much a part of management-speak and management ideology," says Dr Kate Purcell, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Research, "that it's affected employees' perceptions of their own security to the extent that they feel greater insecurity than is justified by the facts. To read some high-profile reports you would think we are all working from home on a short-term contract, when the more careful academic research shows only a relatively small proportion of people have had their working lives changed all that much."

The fact that so many people believe in the new "paradigm shift" is down, in my view, to a conspiracy of the highest order from various lobbies who all have something to gain from its propagation. First the future- of-work theorists. They have looked into their crystal balls, or perhaps wallets, and seen the shape of tomorrow's employment. To describe it they have invented a lot of stupid names. There has been the "end of work", "the doughnut model", "the shamrock model", "the virtual corporation" and the "job-doctor phenomenon". Workers are "portfolio nomads" trekking from job to job, portable skills all packed up.

Next, there is the huge army of management consultants whose job it is to pleasure themselves over the cliches of the future-of-work theorists and gush fantastically expensive advice. There are almost as many management consultants as there are workers now because they've all been sacked from proper jobs thanks to the future-of-work theorists. So their advice is a form of revenge. Finally, there are the employer bodies. They have sniffed the wind and taken up the groundbeat - after all, it well serves their cost-cutting instincts. Unless Britain is flexible, they say, customers will all pout, hold their breath, snort like horses and flounce off to a sweat shop.

The trouble with all this is that this world is not really designed for people with real lives who don't just live to work. I may be quite rare among IoS readers in suffering from an acute lack of aspiration, the responsibility for which may lie with the gene pool or the government, I don't know. The daily treats are lunch-time and home-time; the prize a comfy retirement in a bathchair, and a shed. But I'm sure I'm not rare in resenting a confected world where there is no certainty, where no planning is possible and where every commitment, in the form of baby, family, home and interest, is a barrier towards greater flexibility and greater advancement. Obviously there will be some motivated, go-ahead types who are happy up-skilling, climbing the corporate ladder, falling off it and then starting again. Many dependable, disposable sorts, on the other hand, denied even a modicum of job security as their contracts get shorter, will not be. In short, what I want and what I intend to find is a job for life.

The future-of-work theorists justify their pessimism about hanging onto a job by reference to thousands of statistics and surveys all showing part-timers taking over the world, more temps, more home-workers, fewer managers, earlier retirements, longer hours. But there are plenty showing work to be not that different from how it has always been.

The Office for National Statistics shows the number of people who have been in a job for 20 years or more has scarcely budged one point from the start of the decade (10 per cent). Most have been in their job for between five and 10 years, as always. The Institute of Personnel and Development has a labour turnover study that finds that most people jump long after a solid five years in a job.

Moreover, while the government's Labour Force Survey is chock-full of numbers showing that all forms of flexible work practices are on the rise (the flip side, of course, is perceived to be more job insecurity), lots of rather pleasing figures never seem to attract attention. In fact, part- time working grew quickest in the Fifties (148 per cent) and Sixties (89 per cent). Yet by the Eighties it had slowed quite remarkably to just 48 per cent. It seems to be a similar picture of exaggeration with temping, which the government only started to measure more recently. In 1984, temporary work - including fixed- term contracts, agency, casual or seasonal work - accounted for 5.3 per cent of all employees. Exactly a decade later it had risen to a massive 6.5 per cent.

So while it's growing, the beast "flexibility" has not been a juggernaut hurtling out of control sparking revolution in everybody's working life and coming as the gravedigger to all life's certainties. Rather, it has been a longer, more gradual thing.

Basically, the good news is this: there are 25-and-a-half odd million people in work, of whom about 19 million are full-time permanent and just over six million are part-time. Within these figures temps account for just over one-and-a-half million. Succour indeed for your super-annuated slacker.

I am in fact indebted to the very employer bodies which have been pronouncing the grant-eternal-rest-untos over the job-for-life for my solution. The best chance of getting a job for life, according to the Institute of Personnel and Development, is, despite the cuts, still in local government (11.91 per cent turnover) or maybe the chemical industry or mining. Employers in the NHS and, intriguingly, high-tech electronics, also report very low turnover. I should steer well clear of hotel and leisure, publishing, food and drink, consumer products, general manufacturing and professional services. Fast and listless, the lot of them. The Confederation of British Industry is, as ever, gormless and unhelpful. "Look, there are no jobs for life anymore," says an agitated-sounding woman.

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