The Reporter
Issue 495, 26 January 2004
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The future of employment . . . the ‘hourglass’ economy

Academics and the general public think they know where employment in Britain is heading. But a major research programme led by Leeds University Business School has found many of our assumptions are misplaced.

The UK is heading neither for a future of dead-end McJobs nor a bright new world of hi-tech workers, according to the latest findings of a £4m research programme involving 100 researchers and 22 universities led by Leeds University Business School professor Peter Nolan.

Hairdressers in the University UnionThe 27 projects carried out under the programme have comprehensively researched contemporary employment patterns and found that many existing assumptions are ill-founded.

Characterisations by academics and the general public of the labour market have been divided between two dominant views. Many have predicted the drift of traditional jobs to foreign cheap labour economies leaving only low-wage service employment for UK workers, while on the other hand some see new technology bringing the predominance of the well-paid, highly-skilled ‘knowledge worker’.

Yet according to Professor Nolan neither belief is based on fact. And the Future of Work programme has begun to replace existing assumptions with solid research findings.

“The world of work is changing, but there are also important continuities,” said Professor Nolan.

“There’s a lot of talk about the ‘new economy’, that our working lives are radically different from ten years ago, but the research has shown this simply isn’t true. Only a minority of workers have been affected by new technology, which in most cases just provides different reasons to do traditional work. Things may increasingly be sold over the internet, but shelf packers, warehouse keepers, drivers and telephone operators are still needed to ensure those goods reach the customer.”

While existing studies and literature on the nature of work have suggested seismic shifts in employment patterns the programme’s research has compared current statistics with those from the beginning of the 20th century and at key points since and found that many things have changed little.

A major piece of research carried out as part of the programme – the Working in Britain survey, completed in 2000 – found that far from a uniform culture of casualisation, full-time permanent employment dominates and the proportion of those with permanent jobs has increased since the early 1990s (90% in 2000, 80% in 1992). Temporary contracts have also declined over the past decade and the average length of time in a job has increased from 74 to 88 months.

And a survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics into UK employees’ experiences of work showed that the total number of manual workers has remained stable at around 10.5 million, despite the erosion of jobs in manufacturing. When secretarial and clerical workers are included in the figures, the ‘traditional’ workforce rises to 17 million, around two-thirds of the total employed.

Professor Nolan admits that widespread casualisation or the dawn of the knowledge economy can seem like reality for many – but he thinks that they are only parts of the whole picture.

Detailed study, he says, points to the emergence of an ‘hourglass economy’: “At the top of the jobs hierarchy there has been a proliferation of high-paid jobs whose incumbents enjoy substantial discretion over the hours, places and patterns of their working time. But in Britain their fortunes have merely served to fuel the growth of low-paid, routine and unskilled employment in occupations that would have been pre-eminent fifty years ago. We have seen a growth in occupations such as carers, cleaners and drivers – people who carry out fairly menial tasks for the high earners. The fastest growing occupation has been hairdressing, which has seen growth of 302% over the past 10 years,” he adds.

While this year sees the end of its official five years’ funding, the ESRC has awarded a grant for a further twelve months, to cover four events including a major international conference. Professor Nolan hopes this will help further disseminate the findings of the programme to key decision makers.

“The project is aimed at enriching the research base and informing policy makers and practitioners in the world of work,” said Professor Nolan.
“It’s always been a key part of the programme that we involve, and disseminate our findings to, key constituencies. We’re working with government departments, trade unions, voluntary groups and charities, HR directors and chief executives. One project looking at change management involves the CEOs of 250 major corporations.”

Professor Nolan believes the work is having an impact at policy level. “The Government is changing its line somewhat, admitting they made too much of the ‘new economy’ in the past and failed to recognise how many are still working in the ‘old economy’, and have promised to redress this in future.”

Further information is available from the LUBS website

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