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Wednesday 16 October 2019
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The look of labour in 2040

“Not without merit, but a bit dated.” That judgement could apply to anything under the sun, from a hairstyle to the design of a new model car or a suggested solution to a problem, but it was the demoralising feedback a friend received from a potential London literary agent in response to a sample chapter from a book she is writing.

It may surprise the reader to learn that a story or the way of telling it could be considered old-fashioned. It is not to say the experienced author had started her manuscript with the traditional, “Crick, crack”, which would make the response she received understandable. But in fact, the assessment could relate to any period of time and literature is not outside of the world in which we live, where so much is in constant flux that at every moment we are poised to become redundant. This sense of a perpetual fall into irrelevance should not deflate us, but rather stir us to the quick.

What could the professional reader mean by “dated”? Is the story one that is so well known that although the tale and the authorship had “merit”, it could no longer excite us, or is it that the world is demanding new kinds of stories, new conundrums, new conceits? Those are all possible explanations, although they ignore the fact that each person’s story is unique, the cast of players is different and the nature of the human being has hardly changed. I think the agent could only mean that the tale should be packaged differently, which reveals little about the writer and much more about the world of work and of the marketplace.

Last week we had a holiday to celebrate work and workers. That too is not without merit but also dated, since Labour Day does not celebrate the future. The OWTU wanted “a show of force” to open people’s eyes to unemployment, hardship and poverty. Our eyes should be opened to the fact that the world of work is changing rapidly and we are not ready for it. Much is wrong with the workplace and we should be focusing on how to fix it and plan a course for the future, starting with how we prepare young people for 21st century work when AI promises to replace human beings in many jobs and where problem solving and people skills are as important as being able to drill a well or be a bank manager. It would help too to improve employment chances by introducing, for example, a national scoring system of not just one’s paper qualifications but also those valuable other abilities derived through wider life experiences, including training, travel and contributing to the voluntary sector. These enhance people skills, which are in short supply in TT, but aid productivity.

The notion of the workplace is mainly stuck in the 19th century industrialisation framework where people qualify and then spend years of their life striving to make more and more money to have a better quality of life. We should think about the quality of work as well. In TT we could improve work by allowing more paternity leave and flexitime working, by enabling all people who are not in the official workplace, such as the self-employed and freelancers, to pay NIS – and the contributions need to increase fast or soon nobody will receive any pension ­– and enjoy some of the guarantees of old-fashioned employment. As the oil field and other traditional jobs become depleted we should think of how those ex-workers could upskill to new technologies and reskill to work in the lively, if frustrated, independent or service sectors. The banks could help by reducing their ridiculously high loan interest rates to help create capital in the self-employed sector to drive income and expansion. And, we should remember that there would always be low-skilled people, so how can we ensure regular improvement in their earning capacity to match the ever-rising cost of living?

Also worthy of our attention is the NPO/NGO sector, which is discouraged in TT, instead of valued and allowed to flourish. The new legislation requiring NPO registration is welcome but only if it also enables that very productive and versatile sector the chance to realise its potential to develop, innovate and invest in order to raise the earning power of the many who get only an inadequate living from it. There must be incentives because NPOs in 2040 will still be an important part of the socio-economic eco-system.

The role of the union “movement” in the brave new world of work is to be future thinking and unions must modernise if they are not to be irrelevant. Membership is falling as old jobs disappear, but the management-worker dynamic will never change so unions must decide to be as creative as capital can be.

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