Right to a minimum wage
Right to Health & Safety at work
Right to have paid holidays
Right for maternity/paternity leave
Right to be represented
Right to separate “life” and “work”
Freedom to work as and when one likes
Freedom to work for multiple employers
Freedom to negotiate your own remuneration
Freedom to educate oneself and develop skills
Freedom to go home when you want
As an unpaid volunteer chairing both a charity and school board I’m always amused how I am expected to recognise the rights of both charities’ employed staff. I’m gently told “But I don’t work evenings and weekends” and I’m breaching the invisible line between life and work… As I am a volunteer I don’t have such rights and I’m expected to be available not quite 24:7, but sometimes it feels that way.
I think the issue is more than just about time boundaries, it is a state of mind that for many separates our lives into two – work and life. The words infuriate me as I live at work and enjoy it most of the time. I don’t have a time bound mindset or a set of walls that demarcate between living and working, I live and do lots of things in my life, some get paid for, for others I don’t. My work, family and social lives are all jumbled up. I delude myself I have ‘freedom’ to work when I want to but having taken on a number of roles with an ill-defined set of expectations it all can get rather complicated and time is no more than an enabler. I enjoy my freedom however illusory!
I have the freedom to work or not to work – something that is unimaginable to someone working shifts in an industrial process. When I worked shifts in a steel mill I was mighty grateful for the employee rights that had been build up through a succession of negotiations between the trades unions and the management going back centuries. As a shop steward, I sought to build those rights in the harsh environment of a steel mill. Working 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week didn’t give me much sense of my right to life as opposed to my right to work. I was well paid for my work but my ‘life’ was thin.
One of those rights was British Steel Pension which seemed so secure and inviolable – but now in the pension protection plan it is looking as solid as those wild predictions of how much steel this country needed to produce into the 21st century (60 million tonnes was the forecast; the current reality is 12 million tonnes).
Generation Me: Entitled to More Rights?
The idea that different generations have a distinct set of values is a popular pastime in academic as well as popular psychology. The distinctions are not as stark as presented though tracking how social values are changing is important.
Studies on Millennials (1) show that they may be more self-centred, more prone to see entitlement to a good life and with this an over-confidence around the rewards life brings. This has accentuated the feelings of being excluded where this agenda has not been realised.
Millennials put greater value on empowerment in their work; they like accountability and influence and are keen to grow their education and learning. The environment is important and so too social justice and social equality.
Millennials value intrinsic rewards of feeling they are doing a good job, able to influence their work patterns and that flexibility in work paradoxically, appears to drive a greater sense of accountability and loyalty to the firm.
“As our economy shifts and the nature of work itself moves more towards service and expertise the industrial model that defines work in terms of place, activity (job descriptions) and time (hours of work, payments for overtime) breaks down.”
The Gig Economy: Me as a Skill
As our economy shifts and the nature of work itself moves more towards service and expertise the industrial model that defines work in terms of place, activity (job descriptions) and time (hours of work, payments for overtime) breaks down. This pushes us all more towards a gig economy of work flexibility, multiple employment and a strong sense of ‘Me’ as a skill that I need to sell if I’m to reap life’s rewards.
So, in a world where Millennials want the freedoms they are still drawn to the sense of identity and security that working for an employer gives them along with the rights and benefits. The great employers are enshrining more rights and in some ways more freedoms into their staff relationships. Particularly strong in the creative industries, employees enjoy a bumper set of rights and freedoms. However, this puts into even sharper contrast those for whom work is driven by themselves rather than presented by an employer as a ‘job’. Self is the driver of work rather than the employer.
Our rights of work are held in a triangle between employers, the state and me. Ultimately, it is the state that upholds these rights but the individual and employer have major parts to play. My British Steel pension plan was upheld by the state until it failed. The gig economy is pushing us more to providing our own pension and setting our own terms of work. This is no bad thing but with all rights and freedoms if we take them to excess we find that gig economy workers have low wages, few rights and little power to do anything about it. The danger is that their excess leads to poverty, more inequality and the exploitation of those not able to stand up to the might of Uber and Deliveroo.
The issue for me is not whether or not we should have rights – I believe that citizens should have rights and those rights should give protection for work. The question is rather whether our ideas about work rights are still appropriate? I suspect not. They have been driven out of our industrial past have failed to keep up with our more flexible and agile economy. Self-employment or self-work will increasingly be the norm as we sell our skills to those who want them the most.
The Taylor Review (2) of modern working practices is a start to addressing the tension between these rights and freedoms.
- Our review of generational research included:
- “A Review of the Empirical Evidence on Generational Differences in Work Attitudes” by Jean M. Twenge, article in the Journal of Business & Psychology (June 2010)
- “Do Different Generations Look Differently at High Performance Organisations?” by Andre de Waal et al, article in Journal of Strategy and Management (February 2017).
- “Generational Differences Impact on Leadership Style and Organisational Success” by Mecca M Salahuddin, article in Journal of Diversity Management Vol 5, Number 2 (2010).
- “Good Work” The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (July 2017)