Jobs to cramp our style

Freedom has a thousand charms to show, That slaves, howe'er contented, never know. William Cowper's couplet should be nailed above the desk of every boss in the land. It may be that organisations want productive workers, responsible workers and even (on a good day) happy ones. But the ultimate aspiration must be for free workers - and for work that liberates, rather than limits, the individual.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There is a growing demand among workers for 'job autonomy' - for a greater say over how, where and when their job is done. And, perhaps above all, for expanded opportunities for learning.

None of this should come as a surprise. In the revolutionary year of 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote in his Principles of Political Economy: 'After the means of subsistence are assured, the next in strength of the personal wants of human beings is liberty; and (unlike the physical wants, which as civilization advances become more moderate and more amenable to control) it increases instead of diminishing in intensity as the intelligence and the moral faculties are more developed.'

Mill may have been a tad optimistic about the diminishing intensity of physical wants, as anyone who went to a supermarket before Christmas could testify. And the jury is surely out on the development of the moral faculties of a society that watches Fool Around With My Girlfriend on TV. But the central insight, that freedom is a vital dimension of our humanity, one that acquires greater weight in societies where basic needs are universally met, was a century ahead of its time.

Contemporary society offers plentiful opportunities for freedom of expression, choice of lifestyle, and individual consumption patterns. But on the work front, progress towards freedom has been patchy. On the one hand, the move towards service-sector jobs and the rise in the proportion of skilled jobs have hugely increased the possibilities for individual discretion. Post-industrial work allows more room for individual direction than life on the factory floor. It is clear from the work of social researchers such as Sir Michael Marmot that job satisfaction and lower stress levels are closely related to the degree of control a worker has over their time and their job.

But other factors can combine to make us feel as trapped as any production-line worker. The use of technology to monitor work and workers, the huge increase in the scope and sophistication of management information systems and the rise of the 'target culture' can all have the effect of narrowing jobs. A 2002 Audit Commission report on why people choose to exit the public sector for the private sector found that 'lack of freedom to do the job the way I want' was ranked as the second most important reason for departure. The majority said that they had found more freedom in their new private-sector jobs.

The truth is that for all the talk of delegation and empowerment, in both private and public sectors many employees feel as if the choices about how their job is done are being made way above their heads. And there's an underlying attitude towards work of what economists call a 'disutility', a sacrifice made for the sake only of the resulting salary. Think about the phrase that employees most fear: 'We're letting you go'.

The role of work in human development needs to be urgently re-evaluated. For most people, work is not just a way to pay the bills but an opportunity to associate with others in a joint endeavour, to define ourselves and develop new skills. Having won freedom in most areas of life, the fight for occupational freedom is the last liberal battle.

Not that the transition will be straightforward. The labour market is not sensitive to demands for freedom, which have a tangential - although real - impact on organisational performance. Markets respond well to crisply defined consumer demand, but the demands of workers often fall outside the price mechanism. As the American political economist Robert Lane argues: 'The market is neutral on the character of work; it responds to consumer demands... but responds to workers' needs only when workers raise the cost of indifference.'

So only when workers start voting with their feet away from jobs that cramp their individuality will the labour market respond. There are some signs, such as the Audit Commission research, that this is happening - but at very modest levels. As things stand, individuals have far greater market power when they go shopping at the weekend than they do as workers the remainder of the week.

What is required is a more general shift from the current consumer economy towards what Lane calls a 'producer' economy - not least because the impact of the quality of work on individual wellbeing far outweighs the influence of anything that shopping can do.

The creation of liberating work is a challenge, then, for organisations. But it is equally one for individuals when they make their job choices. We need to start paying as much attention to the degrees of freedom offered by a new job as to the size of the engine of the imminent company car. A little less worship of the 'sovereign consumer' wouldn't go amiss, either. We outlawed contractual slavery 150 years ago. Surely it's now time to free the wage slaves, too.

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