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How The Economist got it wrong

"Farewell to the flexibility fad" - their prediction for 2007


25 October 2007

Every year the Economist magazine boldly brings out a booklet of predictions for the year ahead. I happened across a copy of 'The World in 2007' in a waiting room, and with a mixture of amusement and astonishment was reminded of one of their more left-field predictions from this time last year - that in 2007 the flexible working "fad" would come to an end, and that no one would talk about work-life balance any more.

In a grumpy and confidently fact-free article, the author predicted:

"In 2007 there will be a big retreat. Flexible ways of working, hot-desking and virtual teams will be in retreat. Here are some of the other things that are on the way out:

  • Work-life balance. We will hear a lot less about the so-called work-life balance, which will be just as well. This has been one of the most pernicious and widespread of all the ideas of flexible working. The phrase not only spawned a thousand conferences but also created false expectations among workers, and encouraged companies to be disingenuous about what they wanted... The term is still routinely used but has lost its resonance and in 2007 it will start to sicken and die.
  • Working from home. The internet made this possible and for a while it seemed that it might be the way of the future. But it didnít work well, either for the person at home or for those in the office. Those at home got disconnected from what was happening, while those at work suspected those at home of skiving, and teams failed to gel.
  • Part-time working. There may still be some of this in certain jobs, but in competitive professions and in management it will be full-time or nothing.
  • Job shares. Forward-looking employers used to pretend to be in favour of job shares, but in 2007 it will become acceptable to say in public that actually they often donít work."

Here are some of the landmarks in flexible working in 2007 so far:

  • Around 3.5 million people now work regularly from home - 12% of the workforce

  • Research from the Small Business Federation finds 41% of micro-businesses are home-based

  • A new "right to request" flexible work is introduced for carers of dependent adults, supplementing the existing right to request of parents of young or disabled children

  • Government ministers say that this right should be extended everyone in the workforce

  • David Cameron makes flexible work, work-life balance and well-being central to the New Conservatism

  • Flexible work is embedded in the government's 'transformational government' programme

  • Work Wise UK, the national campaign aiming to get 50% of the workforce working flexibly gathers strength, with endorsement from the CBI, TUC, British Chambers of Commerce and leading lights of the political world

  • The Smart Work Network is launched, a new way to share best practice in implementing flexible work

  • Planning policy at local regional, and national level starts to endorse homeworking and live/work space as sustainable ways to grow the economy

  • Today, 25th October, the Guardian newspaper has a special supplement on flexible work - a testimony to the growing market around this issue.

As we move into November, we find our events diary is full of conferences about flexible work - a regional launch of Work Wise East near Cambridge, another regional event in the Northwest supported by the Regional Development Agency, and a couple of big events in London.  I fear the spawning of the conferences is still going on!

All this points to the rise and rise of flexible working.  And the encouraging sign is that we've moved beyond the talking phase to the doing phase.

I just wonder what the Economist will predict on this front for 2008?



As the Christmas season is upon us in the shops, and the clocks prepare to go back, we know the year is coming to an end.  It's a good time for some (possibly premature) reflections on how flexible working has progressed in 2007.

It seems for the Economist last year's Christmas season was a time for some unreconstructed traditional thinking, as they predicted a retreat from flexible work and a flight back to old ways of working in 2007.

We take a look at what actually happened.




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