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Sydney Lenssen Work in a changing world

At Civils 98 last month, several readers - not all so young - urged that this column should deal with salaries more often. One fan claimed that, framed on his desk was page 13 from NCE's 11 September 1997 issue, its slogan highlighted: 'If you feel that you are underpaid and undervalued, there is little point in moaning to your colleagues. Tell your boss.'

But more important than salaries are the 20 year prospects for today's civil engineering graduates, and the difference between 'jobs' and 'work'.

Few can believe that this country will still be building motorways, but perhaps road maintenance will have restarted. Alternative source power stations might provide some work, together with replacement housing and the odd stretch of railway. Surely new office building will have ceased along with factories and supermarket sheds.

Will there be 'enough jobs to go round?' is how the question is posed in Redefining work, the report of a two year initiative by more than 200 Fellows of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture & Commerce and sponsored by several well-known companies including Marks & Spencer.

The report says that this is the wrong question: there are unlikely to be enough paid jobs to go round in the mainstream economy. The dominance of '40/40 job-shaped jobs' - 40 hours a week for 40 years - will be broken. The world of work will be a varied spectrum which does not distinguish between employment and self-employment or volunteering. Most people will move across the range frequently, often with two or more activities at the same time, not all paying.

Private, public and voluntary organisations will not produce goods and services but will orchestrate the work of specialists. More work will be done when individuals want to do it rather than in fixed hours determined by an employer. The employer will often be someone who strikes a deal in return for a given output, not someone who demands 9 to 5 at a fixed place. The first signs of this change can be seen already in our industry.

The RSA vision recognises four types of work: the private and public sectors plus the voluntary sector - now the fastest growing source of paid employment - and the intermediate labour market in local communities. This is the newest type, started to alleviate unemployment and social exclusion as not for profit community businesses, trading schemes and local co-operatives.

In today's world, jobs provide more than money, especially in a profession such as civil engineering, deliberately chosen by many as a route to serving society's needs. It is a powerful cultural norm for us to identify people we know through their jobs. Jobs are a prime source of social contact. Winning our first job is an important rite of passage.

When people lose their jobs, the personal, psychological and social consequences of removing that source of identity are immense, often far more damaging than any loss of money.

The conventional model of working life is the 40/40 job, and it is so entrenched that people are often surprised when reminded that it was only established in the 1930s, and at that time women were excluded.

We still live with a system where anything less than 40 hours is called part-time, and to get a mortgage easily you need a 'secure' job. Employment for 40 years is the basis of most public and private pension schemes. Many are caught in the pension trap and can't afford to move on. Education and training are geared to fitting in 40 years. The Government won't allow the early payment of part pension if a person wants to work fewer hours.

As author of the RSA initiative, Valerie Bayliss puts it: 'Assumptions about the world of work are deeply embedded, but that world has already changed. The pace of change is increasing and the only certainty will be the constancy of change.' The report is not pessimistic, but does demand that individuals, employers and government must at least try to manage the changes ahead.

Redefining work came out at the end of April and gained little publicity. I suspect that in 20 years time its far-sighted wisdom will still be praised. It is required reading for trustees of pension schemes.

Redefining work, £25 from Lesley James, RSA, tel: (0171) 930 5115. A summary is available free.

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