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The Future of Work by Richard Donkin

This blog post first appeared on the LINE website on August 5th 2010.

The Future of Work, sequel to The History of Work by the same author, former FT journalist Richard Donkin, is about the changing face of work in the 21st century.

Donkin believes we are currently undergoing a revolution in the pattern of work every bit as profound as the changes brought by the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. He puts this down to a number of factors including globalisation, demographics, commoditisation, women’s role in the workplace and, perhaps most importantly, the advent of computer technologies. According to Donkin, the combination of these influences will soon see our current patterns of working become largely untenable.

The commoditisation and mass-consumerism of the 20th century led to stagnancy in the way people worked and in their attitudes to work, Donkin decides. People increasingly saw work as nothing more than a way to earn a living, as many jobs became dull and unfulfilling. However, in the 21st century, all that is changing. People want jobs that interest and stimulate them; work becomes an integral part of life, rather than a necessary chore (this might be news to many). This change in attitudes towards work is itself a force for change, Donkin believes, and positive change at that.

Demographics is an area that Donkin has evidently studied in detail, and many of his most well-argued conclusions arise from this area. For instance, he forsees a rise in retirement age as the skills of Generation X, lacking in later generations, become indispensable. Socio-economics get a look in too: a more ethnically diverse workplace will appear, he forsees, and women will start to reach the apex of their respective fields in a way that is much fairer than we have known up to this point.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book, however, is how light it actually is on prediction, given its title. Of the thirteen chapters, just the final one gets down to exploring what the future of work will actually look like. And even there: “Do I think the more egalitarian world portrayed at the end of the book will come to pass? I doubt it.” At face value, then, the book would seem not to deliver on its basic premise.

Nevertheless, it offers countless valuable insights into working life in the early 21st century, and is crammed with observations, analysis and anecdotes that make it both an interesting and informative read for anyone interested in looking ahead at what work is going to be like in the not too distant future.

The main changes that Donkin thinks will occur over the next few years can best be summed up as follows:

He also sees working across traditional organisational boundaries as becoming commonplace and – interestingly from the point of view of a company like LINE – “knowledge” services becoming key.

Although the book might feel light on future visioning, it nevertheless has somewhat of a proselytising edge. Donkin offers businesses advice (admittedly, untried and untested advice) in how to bring these changes about. This includes, among numerous other suggestions:

• Qualitative measuring of employees
• Promoting a weekly day of rest
• Making all professions accessible from the outside
• Promoting employee health
• Tying top and bottom pay rates

However, the title The Future of Work is in fact deceptive in two ways. Firstly, as we have already mentioned, because the author fails to commit to any but the most broad-brush picture of the future of work. Secondly, however, and perhaps more injuriously, because its operating definition of work seems overly narrow. Donkin focuses almost exclusively, it seems, on office jobs in certain industries, excluding vast swathes of the population who will not find this book relevant.

Also, although the book is well-researched, well-written and useful in understanding established patterns of working life in the 21st century and their implications, it can often feel a little too journalistic. While the numerous examples he furnishes to back up his arguments undoubtedly make those arguments easier to understand, at the same time they also tend to foster a suspicion that what we are getting here is conjecture based on generalisation from quite limited and partial empirical evidence, rather than a comprehensive and rigorous study of the subject at hand.

With these caveats given, we would nevertheless recommend the book for its wealth of interesting observations about 21st century work patterns as they are emerging here and now. Buyer beware however: in a variation to the proverb, this is one book that is best not judged by the title on its cover.

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