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A call for a return to fairness

by Fiona Christie on September 4, 2011

“We value effort, hard work, diligence, conscientiousness, and application; we do not value free-riders, shirkers, the slapdash, those who do the minimum or jobsworths”, writes Will Hutton in his latest book “Them and Us – Changing Britain – Why we need a Fair Society” in a straight-talking  statement that very few people could disagree with as an approach to work.

One of the key themes of his book is a call for fairness at all levels of Society, at the top and the bottom – applicable, in my view to both looters on a smash and grab raid, to bankers approaching their work as if it was a casino.

As a careers professional I am constantly searching for analysis of our Society, trying to make sense of the economic and social issues that will directly impact the opportunities that the people I advise are faced with on a daily basis.   There is no doubt that the challenges that individuals face are so much more that when I graduated 20 years ago – when I applied for one slightly quirky job that suited me well (that’s another story) and got it.

As Chief Executive of the Work Foundation, an organisation tasked to analyse the big issues around Work, Will Hutton is someone I always sit up and listen to, as I feel the issues he addresses directly impact my own professional practice.

Some key ideas struck me from his book which I thought I’d share in this blogpost. Firstly, his argument for a return to fairness, secondly his vigorous support for innovation and enterprise as a way for the British economy to grow, thirdly, his analysis of poor social mobility and how this is bad for UK PLC’s human capital, and lastly some ideas for how to make radical changes to enhance fairness, innovation and human capital.

Why fairness matters?

With regard to fairness, he talks about “due deserts”. He rejects shallow notions of luck that allow people to be successful, quoting a truism in the words of the golfer Gary Player:  “It’s a funny thing: the more I practise, the luckier I get.” He also refers to Malcolm Gladwell ‘s work, in which Gladwell tried to quantify what kind of effort is required for success, using 10,000 hours as the total of hours work required for an elite musical performer but generalising from that figure for other fields of expertise too.

Currently, our Society is witnessing inter-generational “unfairness”; specifically the rather blessed baby boomers who enjoyed free higher education and multiple property booms without having done anything to “deserve” it in contrast to the current younger generation who face large debt to go to University and without considerable family back-up property-ownership is a pipe-dream.

Hutton’s view is that we have too often as a nation taken short cuts rather than put in the effort that is required to get long-lasting success. The recent collapse of the banking system epitomised how financial services took too many short cuts and also failed to adequately invest in the innovation and enterprise required for the long term success of our nation.

How can the UK cultivate innovation in our economy?

What we need if we are really to create sustainable job growth is to construct a British innovation ecosystem which will support private wealth generation for all. Hutton quotes Bill Gates senior in demonstrating that a successful ecosystem for innovation requires a strong relationship between how the State functions and how business and enterprise functions.

“Success is a product of having been born here in this country (the US), a place where education and research are subsidised , where there is an orderly market, where the private sector reaps enormous benefit s from public investment. For someone to assert t that he or she has grown wealthy in America without the benefit of substantial public investment is pure hubris.”

The jobs of the future will certainly be knowledge-based and the human capital required to do them will need a strong social soil to flourish.  Fastfuture’s report for BiS (2010) envisions jobs and industries that could exist in the UK if the environment was right:  manufacturers will make living body parts for transplant and nano-doctors will prescribe and implant molecular scale treatments; food production will be boosted by pharmers who will create genetically modified crops with health benefits; vertical farmers will grow food in city skyscrapers; intelligent avatars will teach our students; personal branders will help people to present themselves on social networking sites; space transport jobs, servicing pensioners’ care and leisure needs.

Is Britain up to the job?

Hutton is concerned about whether our “human capital” in Britain is up to the job.

He describes the growing differences between people in Society. 10 million British adults earn less than 15K a year and close to 3 million are workless and not even offering themselves for employment. Success is largely pre-determined by to whom and where you were born. There is a tendency for “gleeful condemnation of the poor as sponging chavs who deserve their hardship” masking the brute reality of a poor that increasingly locked into this condition. In contrast only 7% of British children are privately educated and 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants, 32% of MPs have been independently schooled.

This analysis is nothing new, The Spirit Level, (which was quoted by both politicians on the right and left), compared social mobility in UK to other developed countries. The comparison wasn’t favourable!

Some big ideas to challenge the status quo

Hutton throws some interesting ideas into the mix, from economist Ton Wilthagen and educationalist Howard Gardner.

In an over-arching critique of current practices in our labour market, Dutch economist Ton Wilthagen invented idea of “flexicurity”. His starting point is that modern firms need ever more contractual flexibility to operate in a fast-changing economic environment. He proposes outlawing redundancy payments but at the same time suggests using the cash saved from redundancy to make better individualised training schemes for staff etc. to improve up skilling and reduce the risks of unemployment. In addition he recommends raising initial early months payment in unemployment benefits so the result of unemployment is less calamitous.

Wilthagen also argues that getting people off to the right start in life is critical and that the State should be employer of last resort – guaranteeing six months of work for 18-24 year olds.

Howard Gardner’ s work challenges whether our education system is fit for the purpose – arguing traditional conception of education is far too constraining in a sense preparing young people to be a traditional “staff member” rather than having the ability to be an innovative and flexible thinker which is required for jobs of the future.

Gardner argues for 5 distinct sets of mental capabilities that are necessary for future progress. The disciplined mind which can work through subject matter  in any discipline to uncover essential laws, truths or insights by a systematic disciplined process; the creative mind; the synthesising mind which can marshal disparate information; the respectful mind which understands diversity; and the ethical mind which accepts mutual responsibility/reciprocity.

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