Why you should have several careers instead of one

The Second Curve's author may be 83 but he is still challenging our ideas about work and society. We should listen to his gentle, incisive voice.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2015

Everyone needs a mentor: a grown-up and experienced voice who asks helpful questions, encourages, warns and explains. Even better is a guide who looks into the future and imagines what might be coming next.

For four decades, Charles Handy has been that kind of mentor, that kind of guide. His is a gentle but incisive voice, questioning, probing, wondering. In over a dozen books he has established a reputation as this country's leading observer of the world of work and organisational life. (It's a bit Anglocentric to say 'this country' - Handy was born in Ireland and remains, in tone and humour, Irish as well as British.)

Work for Handy, who is now 83, has long been a kind of irresistible habit, a duty; his writing a personal quest and an extended conversation with himself. Contemplating the world around him, with its dramatic social change, has spurred him into action.

And so here is The Second Curve - 16 short essays that consider most of Handy's usual themes in his customary thoughtful style. The unifying theme is that change is needed - this is the 'second curve' of the title. Most businesses and most careers follow a sigmoid curve, Handy says, which looks like an S on its side. We start out and dip down as we struggle to establish ourselves. And then, with any luck, we rise to a peak, before hitting an eventual decline and falling away. Most businesses fail, and most careers end. (Why can't businesses pull out of the decline? A second curve in organisations or society is seldom led by those who were in charge of the first curve.)

Handy says that by starting out on a second curve, probably while we are still rising up on that original one, we can avoid decline and renew ourselves. Hence his idea, argued previously, that we need to think in terms of having several careers, not just one. Handy was into 'going plural' before the phrase existed.

The departure in this book is that Handy is a little more urgent, and perhaps a little more worried, than before. 'Society is not working as it should,' he writes. 'Living is getting harder, not easier, for most. Inequality is growing. Wealth is not trickling down.'

He repeats his argument that companies should be concerned with creating wealth for all, not just shareholders. But he goes further, chastising the workings of 'free markets'.

'Second Curve thinking would accept that markets are useful, even essential, but that they need careful regulation and tight rules; that they do not work in all situations... that an unquestioning belief in the power of the market to organise our lives is dangerous; and, crucially, that the value of much of life cannot and should not be expressed in financial terms.'

Handy is not anti-growth but he is anti-business (and society) as usual: 'A Second Curve society would encourage the idea of enough, to curb unthinking consumerism and personal indebtedness. It would also mean dismantling some of the giants of business and finance. Growth should always be the means to a greater purpose rather than an end in itself.'

We also get this on the legacy of privatisation: 'The sale of public utilities in Britain has usually resulted in bigger subsidies paid by government, higher prices for consumers and, one assumes, comfortable profits for the suppliers.'

However, Handy remains a supporter of creative and dynamic companies. He is just a bit nervous about their future. He sees that employment itself has become far more precarious: 'It may only be a matter of time before the contractual organisation becomes the norm,' he writes. 'It will be a sad day.' But flexibility should be embraced to make working life better. 'Work is what we do, not where we go,' he says.

The author maintains he is not political, claiming there is 'no ideology' behind his thinking. In part his scepticism is inspired by a certain nostalgia. 'Sometimes, like many of my vintage, I yearn for the simpler Jane Austen world I grew up in, forgetting how slow and inconvenient much of it was,' he says.

Above all, this book is for young people. Handy wants to encourage them to challenge the status quo and to be bold in shaping their own lives: 'Every Second Curve brings its own learning curve, until we eventually work out how to live with its consequences.'

While some of Handy's books, such as The Empty Raincoat or The Hungry Spirit, may have been more substantial, this late collection nonetheless reflects his unique response to the world. His voice is a reassuring, challenging presence. We should continue to listen to it.

The Second Curve - thoughts on reinventing society by Charles Handy. Published by Random House Books at £14.99.

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