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Are we happy living in Handy's Age of Unreason?

Working from home has been discussed for decades. 30 years ago it was known as telecommuting.

In 1989 Charles Handy wrote The Age of Unreason. It’s a book that looked forward to a time where telecommuting would be an everyday reality.

We live in that world today, although we use the term working from home.

The book contains other predictions that were on the money.

When nothing is forever

Handy forecasted that organisations would no longer hire vast numbers of workers. Instead they either employ on a temporary basis or hire people as consultants. He looked forward to a world where people no longer regard jobs, marriage – or any other aspect of their lives – as being forever.

That’s a reasonable take on today’s job market. Many of us live in the gig economy. Today many companies are hollowed out shells with key employees not being on the payroll.

Some of those companies are huge. Uber doesn’t employ drivers, it uses contractors. The people working at the sharp end of the courier business are not employees even though they wear company uniforms.

Contactor chains

When someone from a telecommunications company installs your fibre, they might drive a van with company logo and wear a branded t-shirt, but legally they are subcontractors working for contractors. They may even be subcontractors to the subcontractors who are working for contractors.

In the book Handy explored the contradiction that employers want to hire staff that have both knowledge and experience even though it is impossible to get experience without first getting a job.

He says there are professions where young people move through the ranks to the point where they can switch careers. In 1989 journalism looked like a good example of this. Even today young journalists have huge amounts of responsibility early in their careers. Few stay with the job for decades, the training is often valuable elsewhere.

Likewise people who start out in tech careers dealing with customers on help desks. That can be a fast track to better paid work, although that is not always the case. It can also be a dead-end.

Work harder but for less time

Another idea in The Age of Unreason is that people have shorter careers in the past, but that they work harder. This means that over the length of their working life they often rack up as many hours as earlier generations.

Handy says people spend longer in education so they start working later. Yet employers encourage them to leave work at an earlier age.

Few people stay with the big management consulting firms for much more than a decade. The graduates of these firms are in demand elsewhere.

A career in, say, international banking might last from the age of 25 to 50, that’s 25 years. In earlier generations, the same career might have lasted almost 50 years from 18 to 68.

One twist Handy misses is that many of today’s employees work longer hours than people did in the 1980s. Although he would feel right at home with the modern managers and business owners who innovate with ideas like the four-day week or nine-day fortnight.

The fact that these schemes make workers more productive and happier at the same time shows they have a better understanding of today’s commercial world than those who cling to more traditional ideas.