Book review: The Future of Work, by Richard Donkin

Richard Donkin advocates humane policies - but some may be luxuries we can't afford, says Luke Johnson.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Recently, I spent the day in a food-processing plant in Park Royal, west London. Over the years, as an analyst and investor in companies, I must have visited hundreds of such factories and warehouses, seeing everything from shoe manufacture to the mass sorting of parcels.

Whenever I witness manual labour first-hand, I think in a sombre way about the tasks undertaken there - something we call work. And I remember how lucky I am that I do not have to spend eight hours a day deboning chickens, for example.

As ever, I am left wondering how many of us are privileged enough to see what we do as something of a vocation, rather than drudgery. Because for most citizens everywhere, work remains about earning a living - and not much else. This is surely a tragedy, but there is no easy solution.

Richard Donkin has written a serious book on the subject of work, partly to consider whether this state of affairs is inevitable. It is an incredibly important topic, and this is a thoughtful and worthwhile contribution.

His focus is on what the world of work will look like in the next 50 years, and why it is changing. This is a follow-up to his previous book Blood Sweat and Tears - The evolution of work, a history of the purpose and meaning of work.

He covers a broad range of topics, from retirement and self-employment to social networks and work/life balance. For those in HR, this book will be a much more enjoyable and possibly useful read than the dull textbooks they are expected to have on their shelves. Donkin doesn't discuss the intricacies of employment legislation, but he does consider such areas as the likely waning significance of qualifications, the issue of pensions, health and fitness in the workplace, and 'the conflict between production and reproduction'.

The author correctly notes that many of the old systems are breaking down. Jobs for life are history; freelancing is expanding rapidly; and always-on technology means many knowledge workers are forced to be perpetually available.

He argues that in an ideal world, everyone's 'work would be intrinsically rewarding, enriching and fulfilling'. I wholly agree with that sentiment, but, unfortunately, machines cannot do all the functions that are dull, dirty or demeaning; or if they can, it doesn't make any economic sense to use automation in that situation.

Unquestionably, capitalism is an imperfect system, but it beats the alternatives. I occasionally sense that the writer only reluctantly accepts this philosophy, despite being an FT columnist.

Like many educated commentators, Donkin worries greatly about consumerism and the environment, and believes we should try to reorganise work to take more time off and think less about consumption. But people like shopping and should be free to buy what they want, within reason; and, on many levels, I admire the 'work hard, play hard' approach to life. I do not believe we need more legislation to force us to downshift.

The last section of the book is a list of key imperatives, called 'Charter for the New Work - A policy agenda'. I expected to disagree with most of them but, actually, I objected to only two of the 18 points. Policymakers and business leaders would do well to study Donkin's suggestions. No detail is provided as to how to carry out proposals such as 'Make all professions more accessible and break down professional "closed shop" protectionism ...', but the principle makes sound sense.

Carrying his recommendations out during a terrible recession will be exceedingly hard, though. Leaving aside technology and changing social behaviour, globalisation has transformed both the British economy and the workplace over recent decades. The presence of low-cost rivals in Asia and elsewhere means hundreds of products and services are now outsourced abroad. Meanwhile, we have burdensome employment laws - especially for smaller firms - and a high-cost welfare system. Our economic recovery will not be at all easy or straightforward.

So unemployment is at a two-decade high, and I worry that many of the job losses are not simply victims of cyclical downturn.

For the past decade, Britain has expanded the state payroll, and depended on a narrow range of fragile industries to create jobs.

As our competitiveness erodes, so will our ability to create paid work for all those who need to keep earning until they are 70, and all those who are desperate to get on the jobs ladder.

Many of the admirable choices that Donkin promotes might well prove to be luxuries we cannot afford. I know of huge numbers of companies that are struggling to survive, so his proposal to 'encourage progression among employers and employees to view Friday as part of the weekend' is simply not practical.

Many of us spend half or more of our waking hours working. It matters a lot that as many as possible spend that time in satisfying pursuits, rather than Thomas Hobbes' vision of life as 'poor, nasty, brutish and short'. This book adds to the topic literature and is to be commended.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

The Future of Work

Richard Donkin

Palgrave Macmillan £25.00.

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