Post-industrial paradoxes: If you've got the time then you almost certainly haven't got the money, says Charles Handy

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The Independent Online
'IF WORK were so great,' said Mark Twain, 'the rich would have hogged it long ago.' They have, Mr Twain, they have. The result is that some have work and money but too little time, while others have all the time but no work and no money. We have made work into a god and then made it difficult for many to worship.

This is one of the many paradoxes now faced by rich societies. I asked a young friend, proud of his new job in a London bank, to come for a drink one evening. 'I cannot get away until 9pm,' he said. 'Not ever?' I asked. 'Not really,' he said. 'My group expects me to be there until late, and on most Saturdays too. I can't let them down.' His neglected partner said: 'It's a crazy system. It doesn't make sense. Why don't they employ twice as many people at half the salary and work them half as hard? That way they could all lead a normal life.'

But they don't, and they won't and they can't, not if they want to remain competitive. Businesses prefer half as many people, paid twice as well and producing three times as much. That is what equals productivity and profit. Organisations are responding to the challenge of efficiency by exporting unproductive work, and people, as fast as they can. Instead of keeping a pool of slightly surplus labour and skills inside the organisation as a sort of cushion for emergencies and comfort, they are pushing those skills outside and pulling them in when necessary. Put many of the full-time workers outside and it is they, not the organisation, who will stand the costs of their unused time.

But these unused workers still need some money if they are to live. The money has, ultimately, to come in some way from the organisations they left, usually in the form of higher taxes. In the end, much the same work gets done and much the same money gets paid, but in different ways. In theory it need not be like that. In theory, those spare workers with their spare time will invent new work to keep themselves busy and in cash. Unfortunately, they are usually the people least capable of creating new work for themselves, because they lack the kinds of intelligence and inclinations that would give them independence. Conditioned to life as employees, they are now expected to be entrepreneurs.

Little more than half Britain's workforce is now in full-time employment. Among Britons aged over 55, only 33 per cent are in paid work of any sort. The figure for France is 27 per cent and for Italy 11 per cent.

Productivity means ever more and ever better work from ever fewer people. That is good for the customer and good for the organisation. It has generally, in the end, been good also for the workers, even those who are not included in the 'fewer'. The ones who stayed got better jobs, and better-paid ones. Those who left moved into the new growth sectors in the economy. Thus it was that 200 years ago agricultural workers began to find work in the new factories, and their descendants (when factories started slimming and closing) moved to the offices and shops of the service sector. Growth and work went on.

This time, however, the new growth sector for work is the do-it- yourself economy. Some of that do-it-yourself economy is paid for and counted, being the self- employment sector which is growing everywhere. Some of it is paid for but not counted - the black economy. Some of it is the purely destructive do-it-yourself of drugs and theft and violence.

Much of this do-it-yourself economy is, however, neither paid for nor counted nor illegal, as when we look after our old and sick, do our own repairs, grow our own food. Pushed out of organisations, people do for themselves what they used to pay others to do for them. But, because this new growth sector is invisible, productivity does not seem to be producing the output increases, or the conventional jobs, that we would have expected. And, in many cases, people have lost the capacity to do things for themselves. Rich societies have drawn more types of work into the formal economy - that way, they count towards the gross national product. They have encouraged specialisation and efficiency but have then, as a result, priced some of that new work out of existence, deskilled many people and created a class of citizens who have nothing to do if they have no job.

Another paradox concerns time. We never seem to have enough time. Yet we live longer and, as technology makes us more efficient, we use less time to make and do things. In a book called The Overworked American, Juliet Schor found that the average employed American now works 164 more hours a year than 20 years ago - the equivalent of an extra month. If present trends continue, the average will be 60 hours a week or 3,000 hours a year in another 20 years. Why do they do it? Schor says that two things come together: organisations want fewer people working longer because it saves them overheads, while individuals want the money.

But time turns out to be a confusing commodity. Busy people will, if they can afford it, spend money to save time, buying time- saving equipment for their homes, pre-cooked meals and help with their chores. The unbusy, on the other hand, spend money to buy time - time to travel, time to learn, time to play and time to keep fit - or spend time doing for themselves what they used to pay others to do.

Time, therefore, creates the new growth area. Personal services for the busy to save time; education, travel and recreation for the affluent unbusy, to spend time; equipment and materials for those who want to spend time to save money. These new growth areas will be best served, not by large corporations but by small independents providing a personal and local delivery linked, maybe by franchising or other networks, into bigger combinations.

This provides the first clue to how we can hope to find ways through the paradoxes of modern life. We must all, individuals, organisations and governments, learn to take a more flexible approach. Organisations must become more decentralised and localised. People must learn to manage their own lives, performing different tasks for different employers but also working for themselves and thus designing personal 'portfolios' of work. Only one-third of British workers now work the 'normal' nine-to-five day. The proportion will grow smaller. I can see a situation in which it will no longer be possible to draw a hard distinction between full- and part- time work, when 'retirement' will become a purely technical term, indicating an entitlement to financial benefits, and when 'overtime' as a concept will seem as outmoded as 'servant' does today.

The most important commodity in this new society will be intelligence. When Microsoft's market value passed that of General Motors in January 1992, the New York Times commented that its only factory asset was the imagination of its workers. Clever workers with clever machines are putting an end to the mass organisation. Singapore, which calls itself the Intelligent Island, recognises in its latest plan that the traditional sources of wealth and comparative advantage - land, raw materials, money, technology - can all be bought in when and if needed, provided one has the people with the intelligence and the know-how to apply them. Singapore, with Hong Kong, has exported all its manufacturing activities to cheaper places such as Sumatra, the Philippines or Guandong in China, but retains the managerial control, the design and the distribution - the intelligence quotient.

What is true for Singapore is true everywhere. The new source of wealth in societies is the intelligence quotient. Intelligence is the new form of property. But it does not behave like other forms of property. You cannot give people intelligence by degree or redistribute it. It is not possible to own someone else's intelligence - the means of production can, in practice, no longer be owned by the people who think they own the business. The means of production are the brains of the workers and it is hard to prevent the brains walking out of the door if they want to. And anyone can, in theory, be intelligent in some way, and thereby obtain power and wealth. There is little to stop any small company muscling in on Microsoft's territory just as Microsoft did to IBM.

This is why investment in education, training and intelligence, for adults as well as young people, is so important to the future of Britain and other industrial societies. In the new world, where we no longer have the security of full- time, life-long jobs or careers, we shall need our wits. Our society will have to become a permanent learning culture where everyone pursues a higher intelligence quotient as avidly as they now look for homes of their own. The governments of the past aspired to create property-owning democracies. They should continue to do so, but they need to redefine property. Our future security will lie not in physical property but in our intelligence and our education.

The author is a visiting professor at the London Business School. His book, 'The Empty Raincoat', from which this article is extracted, was published by Hutchinson last week, price pounds 12.99.

(Photograph omitted)