Furniture for the man who is left on the shelf

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The Independent Online
IKEA takes over Habitat. One symbol of the way we live now takes over a symbol of the way we used to live. Sir Terence Conran's genius, when Habitat was in its prime, was to educate a whole generation to the nostrum that good design need cost no more than mediocre. In that sense he did for British homes what the late Elizabeth David did for British cooking.

Ikea's genius is different. Certainly it combines clever design with efficient retailing - a giant shed full of flat-packs. But merely doing a bit better what the other flat-pack merchants do would not have enabled it to sweep from Sweden across Britain, continental Europe and North America in the way it has. It has been so successful because, along with Marks & Spencer and Japan's 7-Eleven, it understands social and economic change: the way we live now.

A generation ago people would have made their own fruit salads and cut their own sandwiches, but bought their furniture already assembled. Now people buy their fruit salads and sandwiches from M&S but hump the flat-packs home on the roof of the car and spend the weekend trying to put them together.

At M&S the customers, often women, pay a very large premium to have someone else wash and cut the food while they earn the money to pay for it. (In Japan the 7-Eleven convenience stores offer a similar freedom to young, single office workers.) At Ikea the cost of the labour to assemble the kit and to deliver it is supplied 'free' by the purchaser, often a man. All that is being bought is the design skill and some fairly cheap raw materials, because it is very hard for anyone to earn enough - after paying their own income tax - also to pay Swedish wages, tax and social security costs.

Anyone who enjoys cooking and hates putting up shelves will deplore the social forces that have led to these changes. But they are a fact of life in every industrial society, a function of the convergence between male and female roles all over the industrial world. Women are becoming busier as they combine careers with families; men are becoming less busy, because they are spending more time in education, are unemployed or are retiring early.

This trend has gone furthest in Sweden. A study by Christina Jonung and Inga Persson at Lund University shows that paid-for, or market, work is being redistributed between men and women. Women are working longer hours and form a larger proportion of the workforce; men are cutting their hours and withdrawing from the workforce. In 1963 women took 29 per cent of the market work, but by 1988 this had risen to 41 per cent. No wonder it pays busy women to have someone else (such as M&S or 7- Eleven suppliers) prepare the supper; no wonder men have the time to screw together the Ikea shelves.

Of course this shift is not entirely a matter of choice. To a large extent it is imposed on people in response to big changes in the labour market. The jobs being lost, be they here in the mines or at General Motors in Detroit, are overwhelmingly 'male'. The jobs being created, mainly in service industries, are either 'female', or are rapidly becoming so. Men have become much less competitive in the labour market. This shows in the British unemployment statistics. This month's figures saw male unemployment pass the peak of the last cycle in the early Eighties; by contrast female unemployment is still significantly lower.

Of course we cannot go on like this. Women cannot go on working longer and harder while men spend more and more time in voluntary or involuntary leisure without something giving. But there are at least two reasons to suspect that this trend has some way to run.

One is that women are still paid less than men in every industrial country in the world, despite all the equal pay legislation and the fact that they are more successful at getting jobs than men. It is partly because they are worse paid that they are getting the jobs, but it also reflects some lag in the market's response. Market forces will probably drive women's pay up to men's levels in the years ahead. But until that happens women will tend to find it easier to get jobs than men, so female participation rates will rise.

The second reason is that women still work shorter hours. According to Social Trends British men work more hours than any other men in Europe (though fewer than the Japanese), while British women work Europe's shortest hours, bar the Dutch. So there would seem to be scope for growth there.

My own guess is that continuing convergence in the way men and women work will lead to significant changes in the way they treat each other. If men want jobs they will have to adapt better to those that are available, many of which they regard as 'women's work'.

Market forces will enable women to earn as much as men, allowing obviously for a break to have childen. In adapting, men will be helped by demography. With a rapidly ageing population young people of both genders will be in strong demand. The best retailers will be swift to adapt to this. Expect Ikea to move away from expecting customers to assemble shelves, and towards catering for high-earning families who do not have time to shop, by delivering to their homes quality products at times convenient to the buyer.

Maybe, just maybe, retailers will make shopping a nicer experience, as it was in those long-ago early Habitat days.