There are at least two areas on which commentators agree: 80% of new jobs will be filled by women, and one of the few certain areas of expansion is financial and business services. To date, women have been singularly unsuccessful in scaling the heights of business - accounting for a mere 3% of board members - but if one company can buck this trend, it could well be the Abbey National, where 55% of branch managers are now women.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Abbey should be more willing than most to challenge traditional orthodoxies. It is only six years ago, after all, that it turned itself, overnight, from a salt-of-the-earth building society, apparently rooted in the stolid paternalism of the 1950s, into a publicly quoted financial services company willing to venture into any area where it could find sufficient customers. By the end of 1994 it had turned 24% of its business into financial services other than mortgages. By the end of 1997 it aims to make that figure 40%.
The increase in its workforce from 14,903 in 1989 to 18,780 today includes both the acquisition of Scottish Mutual in 1992, which added 1,000 staff, and the disposal of Cornerstone estate agents, which shed 500. Overall, the jobs trend is rapidly upwards. The Abbey still has all of the 675 branches it had in 1989; it's just that many of the staff are doing different things.
Perhaps more significant still is the increase in head office staff from 3,070 to 7,191 in the same period. Many of these work for Abbey National Direct, selling life assurance and mortgages over the phone.