Now that the career is dead, you are either a wife or a mistress

The mistress is taking on the wife in an office near you. Before you rush to buy ringside tickets, I should make it clear that this is not about a cat fight that risks overturning the chairs in the boardroom, or an expletive-packed shouting match among the filing cabinets.

This is about the two competing philosophies of work in the 21st century, as identified by that tireless monitor of new Labour Britain, Demos.

We've been told ad nauseam that the world of work is changing. Now Demos (in Entrepreneurship and the wired life by Fernando Flores and John Gray, £6.95) tells us how.

The foreword presents the now familiar horror show of employment that is temporary or part-time, where almost all benefits have been forfeited, and certainly last only as long as the date on your pay cheque. Already, almost a quarter of the British workforce works only part-time; and two-thirds of enterprises have no employees, in the traditional sense, at all.

Career RIP, then; and in its wake, we shall have to choose between "the wired life" and entrepreneurship.

The wired life means taking on the mistress's approach to working relationships. You focus on "projects", or short-term flings that engage you passionately, but give you no security. These projects - a consultancy for a big company in its media management, for instance - require live wires to be risk-takers, living on adrenalin until the job at hand is completed and the company bosses are satisfied.

It is a task-oriented approach that demands the kind of tunnel-visioned concentration of obsessional love: others cease to exist, and every other plan takes a back seat. It delivers a great buzz in profit and success - and leaves you free of those dull bourgeois mores, such as responsibility and expectations. In this game, loyalty is for the birds - or for the elderly who have lived past their sell-by date. The wired lifer feels no compunction about leaving a company when something better is on offer; and knows that no employer feels bound to him or her in terms of benefits, pension schemes, et al.

But like the mistress's role, there is no status for the wired lifer. You'll operate in the shadows - the only public recognition you'll get is a pat on the back, a brief, sotto voce word of thanks.

Once you forgo status and long-term commitment, you find yourself sidelined by the community of colleagues. They don't trust someone they can't place in the hierarchy at work; and don't like the autonomous mavericks who look down their noses at the age-old rules and rewards.

In contrast to this approach, we have the entrepreneur, who brings all the wifely attributes to working life. Entrepreneurs - the Demos pamphlet holds up Anita Roddick as a prime example - are motivated by a desire to help their community. They believe in shared responsibilities and they value loyalty. For these workers, association, with its mutual duties and interpersonal links, yields far greater satisfaction than going solo - at least in the long term. Like a good wife, the entrepreneur is prepared to sacrifice individual kicks to the big picture - the welfare of the community comes above the well-being of your self. This sacrifice wins our respect: these people are patient builders, not flashy seducers. The rest of us reward their selfless efforts with a high status.

Like sophisticated continental marriages, our economy will have to accommodate both wife and mistress. There's no doubt, though, that the optimum (or at least the more solid and peaceful) scenario is one where the wives outnumber the mistresses. To promote this, we need to offer the future wives a sentimental education that eschews fancy seduction techniques, but relies on traditional skills and values, such as listening, an empathy and respect for different backgrounds, and a sense of the Good Life. An arduous curriculum, perhaps - but oh the rewards in store . . .

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