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The Future of Work

by Theodore Zeldin

Are you as respected and appreciated as you deserve? Success in a career is no longer enough. Every profession is complaining that it is not properly valued or understood, and even among individuals who have won eminence, there is often bitterness behind the fame.

Loving your work, until recently, was enough to make you a member of an envied minority. But now you have to ask yourself what your job is doing to you as a person, to your mind, character and relationships. However brilliant your skills, if they make you a bore, unable to converse with those outside your speciality, if your work does not deserve to be loved, because it damages other people, if you are so busy with detail that you have no time to acquire wisdom, or exercise your imagination or humour, then no amount of status or financial reward will compensate for your inadequacy as a human being.

So I am trying to discover how work could have the fulfilment of these new aspirations as its first priority - instead of treating us as clay to be moulded to suit industrial purposes - and how it could be reconceived to suit us all, both women and men. It would have to be not just a way of creating wealth, but a worthwhile style of life, a path to a fuller existence, to the discovery of unsuspected talents and to a wider variety of human contacts. Abolishing unemployment is too simple a goal, because the more people are educated, the more they demand jobs that are life-enhancing, interesting and useful. A lifetime of work has to be seen as a work of art, composed by oneself, with a lot of help from others.

The middle class professions no longer have the liberating appeal they once had. Doctors are often more stressed than their patients and complain about the failure of clinical medicine. G.P.s choose to work part-time 'to remain sane', combining doctoring with something totally different. Accountants, despite unprecedented influence, are troubled by doubts about their profession's ethics. Most architects never get the chance to exercise their imaginations freely. Teachers have never been so demoralised. Administrators are paralysed by their own bureaucracy. The wizards of technology, whose purpose was to diminish mindless chores, have found themselves reinforcing the pressure on workers: General Motors can now get 57 instead of 45 seconds of work out of each employee each minute.

Meanwhile, business corporations and public institutions are slimming as though they have anorexia nervosa. The panaceas of decentralised decision making, increasing skills and performance-related rewards have not succeeded in winning commitment from employees. In Britain, only 8% of employees are 'strongly of the view that their values and those of their organisations are very similar', only 14% are proud of their organisation, only 30% feel loyalty to it. The middle managers, who once incarnated the ideal of success, are, as a European study reveals, losing their conviction.

I have embarked on an investigation of a wide range of occupations, one by one, to see how each shapes and sometimes castrates those in it. I study how the notion of what humans are capable of has been expanded in different civilisations, and how courage can be manufactured. I have applied my method to the major preoccupations of our time - happiness, love, friendship and respect. Now I am focusing on the search for more satisfying ways of earning a living. There is no shortage of experts devoting themselves to prolonging the life and increasing the income of corporations and institutions. But auditing our finances is not enough: we need to make an audit of ourselves as human beings too, and discover with what sort of people we want to spend our lives.

How many of us can say that we are fully alive at work? How many of us are really part-time slaves - theoretically having the right to escape from our drudgery, but in reality virtual prisoners of our qualifications and careers, used as instruments by others, working not so that we might become better people, or so that the cruelty in the world might be diminished, but because we can see no other option? No government statistic reveals that.

Take hotel workers as an example (10% of the working population is now in the 'hospitality industry'). I have been observing them at all levels of their hierarchy, thanks to the chairman of a group who said 'Make our hotels your laboratory'. The amount of unused potential is unbelievable. Many highly intelligent and lively people put up with low prestige, low salaries and long hours. That is because there has been no serious rethinking of what a hotel is since the days of Ritz, with his 19th century idea of luxury.

A hotel is not just a place where travellers sleep, but a United Nations in miniature. People from all over the world meet at hotels, though they usually pass each other in silence. A large proportion of the staff are often foreigners too, keen to learn a new language and discover a new civilisation, but they have the most superficial relations with their guests. Hotels could be cultural centres, active intermediaries between the guest and the city, genuine hosts who know how to bring together people who have not met. They could use the knowledge of the many students they employ, instead of giving them only menial tasks. If they paid closer attention to their staff's deepest ambitions, they would realise that there were many other services hotels could provide.

The accountants restrain them, saying that firms should concentrate on one core activity to make the best profit. But the time has come to rethink what a core activity is, from a human, not just a financial angle, and move on from traditional categorisations, just as we have moved on from stereotypes about what 'races' are supposed to be good at.

Hotels do not ask what their staff have in common with their guests, and what else they could do for each other, because they know so little about their guests - and often about their staff - even though they spend vast sums on sophisticated IT to store the rather unsophisticated information they collect. Chambermaids would not need to be reduced to exhaustion by having to clean fourteen rooms a day if managers did not cling to notions of customer service based on a far too simple view of what produces 'guest satisfaction'. Half the aberrations of industry are due to myths about what customers want. Unfortunately, it is only when they are in deep trouble that industries are willing to sweep the myths away.

For me, it is not individuals (or the masses) who change the world, but twosomes. It is couples who create the next generation. It is in private meetings between two individuals that we learn how to exchange encouragement and to feel what another person feels. Big changes are superficial unless they are the sum of a lot of little changes in the way we understand and treat one another. Our life stories are dominated by the encounters we have had with particular individuals, and by our constant search for new encounters. The underprivileged are those who meet only other underprivileged people and can create no spark between them. They need intermediaries to bring about other sorts of encounter.

That is what work does, or should do. Work is a relationship. Now that many people are not content with relationships based on obedience, and regard work as an assertion of independence or temperament, they must be given a chance to design their own jobs, and choose their own colleagues, even their customers, within the limits of practicality and profitability.

That means they have to know how to converse across the boundaries of professional jargon, with minds which may at first seem quite alien. Everybody is clear about the importance of communication, but it is a very different thing from conversation, and the traditional conversation - whose masters have been brilliant orators trying to impress each other, while ordinary folk find in it just a way of passing the time, without necessarily revealing much of themselves - is very different from the new kind of conversation which people feel the lack of today. This is a more intimate encounter, which creates a bond of respect between the participants, and is valued as a way of getting inside another person's skin, with the likelihood that one will be changed by the experience. It is more than a relaxation, because it is the most effective means of establishing equality. Every time you have a conversation which achieves that, the world is changed by a minute amount.

Changes in the workplace have been superficial because they have not integrated these new values of private life, which many women and some men are in the process of transforming. After the publication of my book on Conversation, the head of a multinational rang me to ask whether I could teach his executives to listen: they were so well qualified, he said, that they assumed they knew the answers. Listening is of course not a technique, but the expression of an attitude, that we are incomplete and need to absorb other people's experience.

Work cannot begin to be satisfying, in this deeper sense, until there are more opportunities to exchange experience. Lack of experience is what holds us back from being what we could be. Universities teach us to be specialists; that is valuable, but it limits our capacity to widen our horizons. They used to produce generalists by teaching undergraduates to think, but a specialist postgraduate degree has now become the crowning glory. In these new conditions, we also need a new kind of generalist training to enable people to explore ways of creating balanced work in many different shapes and combinations.

Oxford normally describes itself as having 16000 students and 2000 staff, devoted to acquiring knowledge. But that is to forget its 130,000 graduates all over the world, busy acquiring experience; which is far more valuable than the donations they are constantly being asked for. That potential need not be wasted. They are ideally placed to offer students a broad introduction to the working world, which could be an alternative or a supplement to postgraduate qualifications.

Every university should invite those of its graduates who like to reflect critically on what they do - once or a few times a year, or at different points in their careers - to distil their experience and develop the art of discussing the essentials of their skills with outsiders. No public appreciation is possible for any occupation without demystification. We must rescue experience from being made rigid by the intellectual isolation of many jobs, and from being consigned to the dustbin by retirement. We must show that networking cannot be the Aladdin's lamp of our age unless it is given ethical, aesthetic and intellectual dimensions.

Under the guidance of these graduates, students could be introduced to the languages and methods of the major branches of human endeavour, by spending say three months in each, in different firms or organisations, possibly in different countries. They would discover what it means to grow and process food, and would get a feel for the demands and unpredictability of nature. They would get experience of making and manufacturing things, on a small and a large scale. They would be introduced to the skills of exchanging goods, information and services. They would have an opportunity to spend time among creators of beauty and those who give shape to the world, exploring the alternatives to uniformity. Finally, they would gain practice in some of the many civic and voluntary activities without which society would come to a halt.

Whereas work experience for students is normally chosen at random, to satisfy individual interest, the aim here would be a systematic investigation of all that the world of work offers, and suffers from. Then graduates and students could focus on what they really wanted from work, and how, between them, they could make their hopes a reality.

Renaissance Man showed it was possible to make work into an adventure. We could go one stage further. Our motto could be: Renaissance Man plus Modern Woman equals Millennium Person.

Copyright ©1999 Theodore Zeldin