Tuesday 7 June 2011

Comparisons Are Odious

The first problem in making comparisons is can the things you are comparing be judged in terms of one another? This brings in the basis for comparisons as well as a lot of other considerations. At the moment there is a debate about which groups have lost out in the last decades and who have done well.

The trouble is how far can you compare, say, how the average office functions in 2011 with that of 1981 or for that matter 1951? Whilst the office of 1951 was recognisable in many ways in that of 1981 there have been major changes. Nowadays 1951 would seem almost closer to the Medieval than to that of 2011.

Says he bashing away at a computer with in house printer and instant mailing facilities linked internationally. But lurking away is a 1950’s Imperial Good Companion portable typewriter next to a filing cabinet with hard copy in abundance just for the record. Old habits die hard.

Given the substantial changes in the structure of the economy as a whole as well as the other changes within the industry, the commerce and the public sector the result has been an economy with different people doing different tasks in different ways. The computer may be a gift but carries its own curse.

Moreover, the moral basis of much of the economic activity has changed. Modern management theory scorns many of the preconceptions of 1981 or 1951. This has led to some of the recent debacles and will lead to more. What is striking now is the absence of much moral context to our present machinery of government.

Also the age structure of the population has changed and within that the age at which many start work is now older than it was in the past. Whilst they spend more time in education the downside is that many are bereft of experience of many of the practical aspects of life. Urbanisation of the population has increased the scope of the disconnections.

In the high street there are very few shops left now from 1951 that are remotely the same and this is almost true of 1981. One recent development is the major expansion in the number of employment agencies. There are now more of them in my town centre than there are banks. The windows tell their own story.

The jobs are all private sector. In one window with thirty jobs, presumably the more attractive ones on offer all the jobs were in the service sector and only one paid more than £20,000 p.a., most rather less. There were no labouring jobs and it seems that manual work of this kind and in much of construction has gone off the radar of the ordinary jobs market.

That one paid a salary which might rate a mortgage on the cheapest properties in town at a squeeze. The majority would be hard put to rent a small local flat. Running a car would make a major hole in the budget.

None carried pension plans and it was clear that there was no question of a “job for life” or indeed much employment protection given the likely nature of the contracts. How you compare this with say in 1951 a reliable factory job with an established firm I do not know and it is still very different from 1981.

What I do not like is the prevailing fear and defensive attitudes of people in the workplace, the uncertainty and the need to compete personally, to deceive and to betray. We may not have earned much at the bottom end of the ladder in the 1950’s but often we managed to laugh and “teamwork” was real and not a formula for controlling dissent or a box to be ticked for the CV for the next job move.

Rather than casting our minds back to a distant and alien past the question should be how should incomes be distributed in a society that is very new and within which we expect a good deal of public provision paid for by taxation.

The answer at present is that nobody has the answers.

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