Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's newspapers

1. If politicians want to be trusted again, they must learn to listen (Daily Telegraph)

Jeremy Hunt MP, the Tory shadow culture secretary, argues that the internet decentralises power, giving people more control over their lives and allowing them to hold their leaders to account.

2. Justice in pay packets starts at the top. Across the board (Guardian)

Finally, moves are afoot to restrain out-of-control salaries -- in the public sector. But the problem orginates with private firms. Polly Toynbee argues for restrictions across the board, and greater respect for public-sector workers.

3. Voters will always go for Santa, not Scrooge (Times)

Optimism and pessimism will be the dividing line for the next election, argues Rachel Sylvester, looking at Cameron's and Brown's approaches so far.

4. The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan (Financial Times)

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the former ambassador to Moscow, says Britain must learn the lessons of history in Afghanistan: no one has explained convincingly why we should succeed where the Russians and, previously, the British themselves failed, or why the war will prevent terrorism at home.

5. David Cameron needs to reclaim the centre ground (Independent)

The latest ComRes poll in today's Independent shows that voters still view the Tories as out of touch. The leading article argues that this is because the Conservative message has become increasingly contradictory.

6. Copenhagen: well that made us think, didn't it? (Times)

Agreement was always going to be almost impossible, says David Aaronovitch. But it wasn't a waste of time: it gave us a crash course in eco-education, presenting us with a "map of where we really are" and what needs to be done.

7. If you want to know who's to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate (Guardian)

George Monbiot is less positive, arguing that Barack Obama's attempt to put China in the frame for failure had its origins in the absence of US campaign finance reform. China made problems, but equally the US "demanded concessions while offering nothing".

8. Time to take off the blinkers in business class (Financial Times)

There cannot be one rule for the banks and another for the rest of society, says Michael Skapinker. The banks -- which have behaved petulantly -- must show why they are necessary.

9. Where have all the big beasts gone? (Independent)

Even when Labour was slaughtered in 1983, it had a galaxy of stars and potential leaders. Steve Richards discusses the dearth of stars, which he blames on a lack of party conviction.

10. Factory schools don't give real education (Times)

A ten-hour day could close the attainment gap between state and private, but only if used well, says Anthony Seldon, discussing a scheme by the Sutton Trust to improve the education of those from deprived backgrounds.

 

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war