BOOK REVIEW : Wolf, wolf! in fun-size cries Neat and pithy, to tell the truth

Beyond Certainty Charles Handy Hutchinson, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Online
Charles Handy's new collection of essays is, as the title indicates, dedicated to the proposition that we live in a time of accelerating change, that the old assumptions about steady jobs and career patterns are dying out. We are entering a world of fabulous technical transformation, the argument goes, in which a small group of high earners will supplant mass employment and the advance of women will shatter commercial conventions. Education and information matter more than industrial muscle power, and sheer demographics - not enough children, too much health - means we face a big prosperity crunch somewhere down the line.

It is a familiar theory. Newt Gingrich is selling a snake-oil version of it to middle America. So it is vexing to find Handy giving it another spin, in the urgent preachy tones that have become the convention. Author of several successful guides to big organisations, Handy has an alert and well-informed interest in business habits, and quite right, too. A vast segment of the population engages in office life, yet its procedures are not often discussed as cultural habits, which is what they are.

Politics has been slow to engage with the real effects of the hi-tech boom and the social revolution accompanying it. And Handy's observations are neat and pithy.

He gives a quick shake to all the big subjects that politics ignores - the effect of micro-chips on employment, the hazards facing an ageing population, the short-term obsessions of stock markets, the social implications of mobile phones. These are good subjects.

There is a problem, though, with books that peddle chirpy, fun-sized profundities. I mean, the title - since when was certainty a fact of life? Handy's rhetoric depends on the pleasant fiction that once upon a time, everyone knew where they stood: Daddy went to work and Mummy cooked dinner and when Daddy got a pay rise, he bought a new decanter for the parlour. Was life ever really like that? Handy has one finger hovering near the panic button, but it is hard to jump when the alarm goes. It sounds too much like someone crying wolf just for the fun of it.

At one point, he writes that we will have to "think more positively and imaginatively about how we chunk our time." Chunk our time? Does that involve buying a new Rolex? Readers, er, paging through the book will certainly find it thoroughly chunked. These very brief speeches and articles are designed for busy people who don't have the inclination (sorry, the time) to read much. The worried author admits that it should not be read in one gulp, and he's right: it repeats itself like a stuck record.

Handy achieves a parody of lively breadth by arguing contradictory things with equal fervour. Half the time he insists that everything is changing, a new age is dawning and so on; but the other half, he is whingeing on about stick-in-the-mud corporate practices, as if nothing is changing. He half insists that the job-for-life was an oppressive trap, and half proposes that companies become "corporate communities" with a sense of sharing and so on. With one hand, he says we are too individualistic and have lost our sense of community; with the other, he urges us to go it alone and become "portfolio people", with our own set of skills to sell in the electronic neo-market.

It's an odd mixture - good, plain truths pushed to the point where they squeak. One can't help concluding that the truly radical gesture in this day and age would be a book declaring, with last-ditch frenzy, that nothing has changed: companies still hire people when the going is good and chuck them overboard when times are hard; the poor still outnumber the rich; people still try to sneak days off when the sun shines. It would be real truth-telling. Even in an age when women produce only 1.6 children, babies still cry in the night.