The future of work: Jobs will soon be flexible, fulfilling and fun

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SO WE are all going to work. A week ago Gordon Brown announced changes to the tax and National Insurance systems to try to reduce the barriers that discourage people from taking jobs. This week Frank Field has outlined proposals to change the benefits system which will have a similar effect.

If the present government does have a big idea, it is that we should become a "high work" society. That is not to criticise the notion. Indeed given the adverse demographic headwind into which all developed countries will be butting, the only way inwe will be able to increase living standards over the next generation will be to get just about everyone who can work into some kind of economic activity. It will be the only way we will be able both to support the growing army of pensioners without a sharp, and probably unsustainable, rise in the taxation burden.

In fact we are already quite a high work society. Britain is like the US and Japan in the proportion of people of working age (16-64) that are in the labour force - they either have some kind of job or they are looking for one. The US has the highest proportion, over 79 per cent in 1996, while Japan and Britain tied with more than 77 per cent. By contrast, the average for Germany, France Italy and Spain was only 66 per cent.

But if we are - by developed country standards - quite good at getting people who can work into work, I'm not so sure that we are good at tailoring the jobs so that the jobs are flexible, fulfilling and fun. We see the problem in macro-economic or public finance terms because it is obviously a problem for the economy and for government. But it is also a problem for human beings. Governments can remove obstacles to work by improving the tax system and they can bully people into it by adjustingthe benefits system. They cannot make jobs nicer.

That surely is more important than anything else. If we are going to move to an even higher-work society than we are now, where there is considerable social, moral and financial pressure on people to do some sort of work, then the only way to make that tolerable is to try to make work more enjoyable.

Ridiculous? As an aim to strive for, of course not: many people, maybe most people, find the social interaction of the workplace one of the great attractions of doing a job. In practice there will inevitably be unpleasant jobs that need to be done. The onus is surely on employers to try to fine- tune work practices. "The trick," as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, "is the make the laughter outweigh the tears."

Enlightened employers know this. Here are three random examples. Just last week thousands of US students headed to Florida for the annual spring break - the traditional endeavour of partying and boozing which used to take place at Fort Lauderdale and now has moved up to Daytona Beach. Thanks to the long US boom, American companies are desperate for good graduates. So what did they do? A number of top US companies, including IBM, set up stalls on the beach, handed out flyers about the careers they had on offer, gave out $5 tokens for refreshments and interviewed people. They even signed a few up, but that was not the aim. The aim was to present themselves as relaxed and flexible places to work, because they knew that was the way to get the best applicants.

Another example is here in London. Most people moving home want to look at houses at the weekend. But estate agents also need to staff their offices at weekend. So they use sixth-formers to help show people round: meet people at the house, let them in, go round with them and make sure it is locked up afterwards. The sixth-formers get some money and have a reasonably interesting day, and the job gets done. It is clever use of - as economists would say - marginal labour.

A third example is the way several of our supermarket chains have special programmes to attract older workers who have taken early retirement. Naturally they tailor the hours to suit the person, and they have found that provided they are flexible in the terms they offer they can get particularly competent people to come and work.

This is only the beginning - small signs that good employers are aware that we are heading into a world where corporate competitive advantage requires a flexible approach to hiring. I would expect several big trends to become much more evident over the next ten years. In particular five barriers or frontiers will be broken down.

First, the frontier between full-time and part-time work will become even more blurred. Clever companies will learn to use efficiently whatever time they can buy from trained people. Managing a flexible workforce, with lots of part-timers, is much more complicated than organising full- timers, but there are great potential gains in efficiency if it is done well.

Next, the frontier between retirement and paid work will also soften, with it becoming normal (as it is in Japan) for people to "retire" and then move straight into some other kind of work, perhaps part-time.

Third, the frontier between learning and work will become much weaker. It will be normal for young people in what we now think of as full-time education to do some kind of work. It will be normal for people in full- time work to carry on being educated at the same time. Both student and work schedules will need to accommodate this.

Fourth, the distinction between paid work and voluntary work will tend to disappear. More people will carry out some kind of voluntary work, regarding this as part of their normal life, alongside their paid activities. Meanwhile more voluntary work

will be partly-paid, that is not at full commercial rates.

Finally the frontier between employment and self-employment will become much less clear-cut. People will work for the majority of their time with an employer, but will have their own private commercial activities alongside this. Both sides will needto be frank with each other to make sure that these sort of relationships benefit everyone.

All this makes management more difficult. It is much harder to run bottom- up flexible organisations, than top-down command and control ones. But the plain fact is that this is a commercial necessity given the changing shape and aspirations of the work-force. Besides, what is wrong with trying to make work more fun?