Stefan Stern: Who wants to go to work every day and find it's like The Apprentice?

The sort of solidarity shown by some union members this week is rare

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With perfect timing, Harold Pinter's Betrayal has been revived in London. Betrayal was the word on the lips of trade union members marching through the capital's streets on Thursday.

Their feelings of dismay and outrage were real. You could see it in their faces. You could hear the bewilderment in the voices of teachers in their late 50s, for example, trying to grasp that they might have to work another 10 years before receiving their pension. This was not the deal they thought they had signed up to.

At a seminar on the same day as the strikes, organised by the International Longevity Centre, the talk was of a potentially more hopeful subject: extending working life – by choice, that is, not through necessity. Examples of employers doing imaginative things to allow people to work longer were discussed. A lot could be done to make work and gradual retirement more flexible and fulfilling. And yet there was also concern that not nearly enough has been done by most employers to make this happen.

The ongoing debate about general well-being, happiness, fulfilment – call it what you like – is fundamentally a discussion about work. Without work nothing very good can happen. Economic recovery depends on it. Social cohesion is impossible without it. Even that marvellous Big Society cannot be conjured up without a lot of productive activity. We need to have a more intelligent and constructive conversation about work if we want to make life better.

For that reason alone, the launch yesterday of a report from the Work Foundation's "Good Work Commission", after two years' study, was welcome. This has been an extended piece of research, a long time in the making, which has pulled together some thoughtful and, at times, even rather idealistic contributions from business leaders and other prominent figures.

Perhaps predictably, the document contains plenty of the upbeat and feel-good rhetoric with which company chairmen and chief executives like to fill their annual reports. There is much talk of meaning, purpose and engagement. Still, the executives involved give the impression, on paper at least, of being sincere.

ITV's chief executive, Adam Crozier, offers a particularly forceful description of how attitudes to work have changed, and what this means for business leaders like him: "The days of just telling people what to do are long gone. Now you need to explain to people why a change needs to happen and what that means...

"A real shift I've seen over the last 10 to 15 years is people wanting to understand what an organisation stands for," Crozier adds. "Wanting to understand what is on offer in terms of the training they will get; how they will be developed. And wanting to know how the organisation will help them lead the more flexible lifestyle they want. They want to know what the organisation does for the environment and for society. Alongside that is a desire that, if they put the right effort into the organisation, they will share in the organisation's success.

"I remember when I started working in the 1980s, it was just about the job. You worked whatever hours you were asked to work and did it pretty unquestioningly. If you look at the people joining us now, it's a very different story."

If he means what he is saying, then this is pretty startling stuff. Frankly, he doesn't sound very much like any of the bosses I've ever worked for. To test the veracity of it you would have to survey ITV staff, anonymously. Indeed, I'm not sure how many Royal Mail employees, where Crozier spent the last seven years as chief executive, would necessarily recognise their former boss as the author of these words.

Even the Work Foundation seems clear that there is a long way to go before Crozier's ideal world can be achieved in British workplaces. Along with the report, a new poll showed only 40 per cent of UK employees believe their bosses act with integrity, while almost half feel the level of trust between management and employees has got worse in the last year. The same poll did at least also show that 63 per cent say their job is "very worthwhile".

The difficulty for those of us who want to see working life improved is that we find ourselves stuck in a hyper-competitive world, filled with economic and political turbulence and uncertainty. It sometimes feels as though it is every man and woman for him or herself. The sort of solidarity shown by some union members this week is rare. Job insecurity and individualised contracts tend to undermine rather than reinforce team spirit. Instead, they can encourage narrow individualism. What is the most popular TV show in this country which purports to give us an insight into business life and the world of work? The Apprentice. And would you want to work with any of those contestants, manage or be managed by them? Exactly.

The former TUC general secretary John (now Lord) Monks used to complain, gently, that while nearly 30 million people went to work in this country every day, the media told us very little about them or what they did. Work was at the same time absolutely central to our lives and yet the nation's best-kept secret. We just get on and muddle through, without stopping to think too hard about it.

So we cannot be surprised when surveys reveal a lack of engagement among the workforce. The quality of British management varies enormously. There is little public discussion of it – and not enough effective training to raise standards. The writer Charles Handy says that the British attitude to management is a bit like its attitude to sex: best not to talk about it. You are just supposed to know what to do.

But for now unemployment remains high, and job prospects, especially for the young, are not good. In these circumstances any work, let alone the good kind, might seem welcome. Who's against good work? Not many of us. But, put simply, there is not enough good work about because there are not enough good workplaces.

The financial crisis was supposed to make us think harder about economic fundamentals. At the heart of this rethink should be a discussion of working life. At least the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, is not asleep on the job. As he told the journalist Charles Moore earlier this year: "The more I've thought about how labour markets work, the more I've realised that there are hardly any jobs whose tasks you can describe exactly. Nowadays, most jobs have the property that employees can choose to do them well or badly, so employers need to think about the long-term welfare of the staff, not just pay today."

Sir Mervyn makes an unlikely management guru. But with these words he is pointing us in the right direction.

Stefan Stern is Visiting Professor of Management Practice at Cass Business School

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