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Work in the coming age

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue April, April 1 - April 30, 2001 | BY John Gray 


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The entrepreneurial approach to working life: Spontaneous, varied, and open to new challenges

John Gray is Professor of Political Science and Europea Thought at the London School of Economics. His most recent books are "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism," and "Two Faces of Liberalism." This article for Ubiquity is an excerpt and variation on the author's chapter in the ACM book, "The Invisible Future: The Seamless Integration of Technology in Everyday Life," McGraw-Hill, August 2001, Peter J. Denning, editor.

Globalization is our future but it is also our past. It certainly is not new. It goes back to the 1870s, when placement of underwater telegraph cables enabled Europe and America to be linked instantaneously for the first time. In 1873, news of a banking collapse in Vienna was transmitted instantly to New York and affected the markets there. Globalization goes back quite awhile. If we understand it in this way -- technologically driven, inter-linking or interconnecting activities throughout the world -- then we can see that its effects will always be rather paradoxical. They won't be either consistently good or consistently bad. They'll always be surprising and doubled-edged.

One of the main things I've been trying to do is discredit the notion that globalization is a new thing. The technology may be new and quantitatively different, but the process itself isn't wholly novel. It shouldn't be confused with other things. When people think of globalization they think of the worldwide mobility of capital, or of deregulation, or of political events like the failure of communism. In other words, they identify it with something like a global free market. When we look back to the 19th century and perceive that this process went on for the whole of the 20th century, then we understand that it's not to be identified with any particular regime. It's not to be identified with any type of capitalism or economic system. It will go on inexorably with all of the possibilities of emancipation and progress that it entails and also the possibilities of risk and instability that it entails. It will go on throughout new regimes and new institutions.

In other words, even if our present global economic regime were to be replaced, collapse, mutate or evolve into something else, globalization will continue as it did in the past. We should understand that more than in the superficial issues by which it's often surrounded.

A very important issue is that of how working life will be organized. The very nature of the psychological and moral organization of work into jobs and careers is changing as a result of new technologies. While these effects cannot be statistically measured yet, there are some areas where they can be seen already. For example, in banking and many service industries new technologies can perform the same tasks as people more cheaply and quickly.

The main changes occurring are subtler. It's not that, as a result of technological progress, people must cope with a working life in which they have five or six main jobs in a working lifetime, instead of three or four. It's rather that it's less reasonable now than in the past for anyone entering working life to assume that they'll be in the same occupation or vocation for the whole of a working life. In other words, it is not that the teacher will have six different jobs as a teacher, when 30 or 40 years ago they might have had three or four jobs as a teacher. It's that by constantly revolutionizing the stock of knowledge and by changing the way in which knowledge is used, the continuous process of technological development is removing the traditional institution of the career from many peoples' lives. This process is immensely emancipationary, but also imposes a task of adjustment, which most people, even young people, haven't yet made.

The traditional institution of a career is not that old. It probably arose in the late 18th or 19th century, so it's a couple hundred years old or so. The arrangements that were built up around a career -- pensions and laws about saving and taxation -- were modeled on a notion of working life in which people make an initial investment in skills and knowledge in late childhood or early manhood. They develop those skills over a working lifetime in which, if they're lucky and reasonably competent, they can assume that the development of a career will, so to speak, track biological aging.

I think that's ceasing to be true because a very important change is taking place, in that aspirations are changing. There are new types of working lives: entrepreneurship and what I call the wired life, in which what people derive fulfillment from is not a lifelong career. They would perceive a lifelong career as a constraint, a form of being stuck or trapped. What they derive meaning from is a form of working life in which they start and develop enterprises or join projects or found new projects and then move on. I think that the traditional career -- which is embodied in all kinds of institutions and practices like taxation and pensions and so forth, and which is deeply embedded in education -- is decreasingly viable and decreasingly realistic both in terms of the continuous technological change we're now undergoing and in terms of most people's aspirations.

At this point I want to mention a caveat which is if there were to be a large setback in the economy then I would anticipate the natural human response would be that old-fashioned careers in big industrial organizations would become more coveted for awhile, and that the new form of working life organized around entrepreneurships and projects would be retarded in its development. But I still think that they are likely to be the future for working life for a great many people because the technological changes and developments are quite inexorable. Also, what might be called the great individualism of late modern culture makes more and more people less willing, partly because they live a lot longer and are much healthier, to commit themselves to a single line of activity throughout their working life.

The word "career" means a pathway. Imagine a carriage going down a particular road to its destination. Likewise, a "career" is a single pathway through the world of work. A person has a career when he or she has a single vocation or occupation, like the woman who trains in law school and becomes a lawyer for the rest of her working life, or the man who becomes a teacher and remains a teacher for the rest of his working life. In other words, a career is that pattern of working life in which, as a result of decisions made in early maturity or even before that, an investment is made in a series of skills and professional knowledge and a person then remains in that occupation. You could teach in a college or then teach in a school or even teach in a prison. You'd still be a teacher. There's some flexibility in what counts as a single career, but it's the notion of the same body of professional knowledge persisting throughout the whole lifetime that links together these different phases of a career.

There's also expectation of progression in a career. If you have reasonable luck and competence then over a working lifetime you can expect to make progress and achieve advancement, in other words, seniority in the career, even though you may be in several different organizations. At the end of your career, you will have made a kind of linear progress.

A very important point is that -- and this is certainly true in European countries, such as Germany or France -- having a career in the sense of a lifelong occupational profession not only gives you a steady source of income, it also gives you a stable identity. If you are introduced to someone else or if you have to fix your place in society of others, have to form a conceptual view, it's as a doctor, or a lawyer, or a soldier, or a judge or a teacher. If one goes back to the great 19th Century social theorists like Emil Durkheim or Max Weber one finds that for them the division of labor into fairly stable occupations, with their associated tasks and identities, was a core element in both psychological stability and social cohesion. So if indeed a change in working lives takes place in the coming century -- and we already have signs that it will -- then it will be a very big change.

If you ask young people what they want from their working lives, most will still say a career. There are some who would talk about setting up jobs, setting up enterprises, becoming entrepreneurs, or taking a project. There would be some who would do that, but I don't get the impression that's yet a majority aspiration. Still, if these changes are afoot, partly in technology, then they're going to have to adapt to a world in which the expectations that have gone with a career have ceased to be realistic.

I'm reminded of a book by the sociologist Richard Sennet, who's also an expert on economics, called the "Corrosion of Character." The book is based on conversations with mid-ranking executives, mainly from airline companies like The Boeing Company, who had to adjust after being laid off in their 40s or early 50s. Their whole set of expectations about a career had been completely turned upside down and would not be resumed because, even though many of them did generate new forms of working lives, they were quite different from the ones before. The evanescence of career doesn't mean job insecurity. It doesn't mean having more jobs or less secure jobs. It means a situation in which either the initial commitment to a single occupation or single vocation is cut off before it's expected to complete naturally due to downsizing or delaying or some new technological change.

The question arises, if people derive meaning and a sense of stable identity from working life partly by organizing it as a career, if their aspirations and hopes for themselves are wrapped up in this institution of a career, or if people who didn't have careers like people in catalyzed occupations, if those aspirations become less reasonable, how do you find a different way of conceiving and understanding work if it is to continue to be meaningful? Sennet's book is important and useful in that it shows the psychological reorientation, after a lot of agonizing, that occurs when people whose work and sense of self esteem and meaning in their lives is organized around a career suddenly find that career is no longer available to them.

Moving from the middle-aged executive who suffers this crisis, consider the young person who hasn't started out yet. Educational institutions, schools and universities are still too narrowly oriented around the idea and the promises that are built up in the notion of a career. The best advice one can give to a young person now is not to invest the meaning of their future lives in a single track throughout the world of work, but rather to view work as an instrument of self development and personal autonomy. That's to say, not to suppose that the pathway of career is either going to be available to them or will necessarily be terribly fulfilling to them.

If you're emerging from university in your early 20s, you think of the huge technological and economic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years and you think that compared with your parents you're likely to be healthy a lot longer than they are. You might be fully fit and capable of working well into your 70s, perhaps into your 80s, 40 or 50 years from now. The notion that your working life should be packaged into 30 or 40 years between school and retirement, the idea that there is a fixed set of parameters separating education from work and work from retirement, becomes constricting and constraining.

Think of all the ways people now already vary their working lives. Some people downshift, that is to say they make a voluntary winning decision to trade off some income in a career that has become too stressful in order to live in a different way. That's a kind of, if you wanted to think in traditional terms, semi-retirement. But they often do that in their 40s. Then they take up a variety of activities. They become portfolio workers or they devote half of their time to charitable work or they live off investments and take up work when they need to just to raise income or they take up family or informal, unpaid work of various sorts. Given the likely further increase in longevity and health, we should be thinking of working life as not for 30 or 40 years, but as 50 or 60 years and as being much more varied than in the past.

It's an irony if you think about it. If you ask young people whether they expect to remain married to the same person throughout the whole of their lives, I suspect that a majority would say they don't. And yet, I also suspect that if you ask the same people whether they expected to remain in the same occupation or career throughout their lives, I suspect more would say they do. And yet, both answers are unrealistic.

If you think of the idea of personal autonomy, which is now very strong and demanding, it doesn't correspond to what people really want. It is a mistake to focus on a bereaved response to the disappearance of an old world of work. I think that's completely pointless. One, no doubt, has sympathy for people laid off in mid-life, but one should be thinking of the younger generation and the world they will live in and what attitudes and perspectives they need to adopt in order to flourish and thrive. They need to see work as a much more fluid, variable, miscellaneous, punctuated, variegated set of activities. That will require a loosening up of institutions, taxation, and all kinds of policies, for example, the pension.

The pension, as we now think of it, was first institutionalized in the time of Bizmark, that's to say after industrialism was underway in countries like Britain, the United States and Germany, towards the end of the 19th Century. It was based on the idea that people worked 30 or 40 years. They'd save for a pension, during that time perhaps compulsory, obliged to by the state or by government. And then they took the pension and did nothing for a few years, and then died.

Well, we don't now retire from full-time work to three to five years of retirement and then die. There are many intermediary stages between full-time work and full-retirement and, indeed, the terms are not as meaningful as they used to be. So, the kinds of tax privileges that are extended to pension, one could argue, should be broadened to cover all kinds of lifetime savings. Pension shouldn't be something that you start saving for in your 20s and only enjoy in your 60s. For example, in Britain (I don't know whether this is the case in the United States. I think the U.S. law and practice are a little more liberal although the basic structure is the same) you have to buy a pension annuity when you retire. You've got to spend a certain proportion -- in Britain it's 75 percent of your pension savings -- on an annuity and you can't touch it until then. Well, the notion of making a sudden quantum shift from full-time working life to retirement, when in retirement you don't work at all, is completely unrealistic for the working majority. All those arrangements have to be greatly reformed. But the precondition is that we recognize that the change is underfoot and that it's unstoppable.

Young people who are just beginning their working life can prepare for this shift by increasing their multipurpose skills. By multipurpose skills I mean both intellectual and social skills of communication -- being able to formulate and express ideas, think clearly and coherently, negotiate social contacts, and have as much numeracy and computer literacy as possible.

Paradoxically, this new world of work makes certain types of specialized knowledge even more valuable, but it makes vocational education as normally conceived less valuable. It's vitally important to keep alive ones' skills of communication and clear thought, skills of rigor and analysis, and ones' capacities for alertness and acuity of perception. Let me give you a couple of examples. Very few people, only those in a few elite occupations, are taught how to negotiate. Diplomats, certain types of conflict mediators, people who go into certain branches of law are taught how to negotiate. Politicians -- sometimes with rather perverse results -- get taught skills of speaking and presenting themselves, but most people still don't. I would like to see these skills much more widely available.

At a time when specialized knowledge is more important but also more quickly obsolete, the basic intellectual cognitive skills and social skills should be taken up. A traditional liberal education of the sort that's still magnificently provided in some American higher education institutions is more valuable. If I were a young person now in the U.S., I wouldn't be thinking to specialize myself in law or medicine or financial services. I'd look for the best available liberal education I could get my hands on at one of the great liberal arts colleges or one of the great universities, broad and modern with as much history and literature as I could get, with some logic and some philosophy of science. I'd seek that broad-based education instead of a narrowly specialized education. That would see me through my life and would give me much wider points of reference. That would be a very miscellaneous working life for most young people, much more miscellaneous than they can probably imagine.

Working life is evolving in two different strands, the wired life and entrepreneurship. They have some things in common but they're divergent in the wake of the career. By the wired life I mean a life oriented around discreet, that's to say separate projects. (I developed this idea in a pamphlet I co-authored with Fernando Flores, the former Minister of Finance in the Chile of Salvador Allende and founder of Business Design Associates in California.) The wired life is one in which there's no career and no single line of activity, there's just a stack of projects organized around teams or networks. Though the projects can be fleeting, the person who's engaged in this type of life pursues it with excitement, spontaneity, and openness to the challenges and demands of the moment. They might also seek high monetary rewards, but they're not alone in that. That's not the defining characteristic of it. You find people like this in the media, in the new and creative industries. People who, often by choice, surely by choice, choose a form of working life whose animating virtues do not include lifelong commitment to a particular line of duty, which would be regarded as a kind of entrapment or form of renunciation.

It's a kind of radicalization of the notion of autonomy, in which an autonomous life is seen as a succession of different episodes, activities or projects one after the other so that the value of that working life is not its consistency or continuity, the way it might have been in the past, but rather its variety, its spontaneity, its responsiveness to the moment. I don't just mean busy partners, workers who move from team to team or activity to activity. I mean a form of life carrying with it a kind of psychology, a set of virtues and values that have grown up in the wake of the career.

By entrepreneurship I mean something different, although the difference is not absolutely stark. In the real world you find many mixed cases. We find many people who have careers or short careers or partial careers or mini careers who've gone for project work and who also maybe have leanings towards entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has a stronger element of commitment in it. That is to say an entrepreneur may have a considerable loyalty to the enterprise that he or she is seeking to found and develop. They may see the enterprise as having a particular place in the history of the community or institution or organization or locality even. They may commit themselves for long periods to the development of that organization. It doesn't mean that they necessarily see themselves in it for a lifetime, but they don't just move on when it ceases to be less exciting to them. In other words, the value is not sheer openness as a demand of the present or moving from one project to another when its initial promise is exhausted. The goal is to make lasting change in the life of an organization or community or locality by building up something that wasn't there before, by reconciling conflicts that were unreconciled before, by meeting demands that either weren't perceived before or were unsatisfied before.

I think entrepreneurship is different, because it involves virtues of commitment and relationship building, and also a sense of community and a sense of history, which is lacking in the wired life. I don't want to disparage the wired life but I can't imagine easily a society in which the working life of everyone is the wired life. I think at least that it would be fractured. Whereas, I think one can envision entrepreneurship, or an entrepreneurial approach to working life, as being of benefit to most people. I don't think that can be said of the wired life.

Entrepreneurs that come to mind are Ben and Jerry who created a new kind of ice cream. An entrepreneur could be someone who creates a new Web site or develops a new technique. An entrepreneur is anyone who creates or contributes a new product or new service or new way of working, which meets a need, which either wasn't recognized or wasn't being met before. I think entrepreneurship, in other words, is different from being an inventor. It's different from being someone who manages an existing business or enterprise. It refers to the creation of some new activity, service or product.

I don't mean that someone who thinks of himself as a teacher should be proactive in looking out for new or better jobs as a teacher. That's not what I mean at all. I mean the sort of skills that a person uses by being a teacher should be thought of as skills that can be used in a whole variety of new contexts and opportunities, some which don't yet even exist. The main extension of the idea of entrepreneurship is the idea that people should be entrepreneurial about the development of their own skills and about their working life as a whole.


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