Today's office drone is part manager, part hairdresser, part celeb
Work was once defined by plumbers and millwrights, faceless guys who fixed things and made things in what sociologists call the “machine civilization.” No more. Now work is “thing-less,” argues a cerebral new study out of London, England, by Stephen Overell. According to “Paradigm Trades: The Iconic Jobs of the Early 21st Century,” modern workers spend their time thinking for a living. Ideas, in other words, are the new pipe wrenches. That’s not to say we all spend our time thinking about big, lofty things. Modern work is driven by two impulses: presentation and organization, which reflect a society dominated to its wingtips by image above all else. Overell defines four new icons of this new workplace: hairdressers, celebrities, management consultants and managers. They work in paradigm trades, or jobs that represent the key themes and preoccupations of the modern world of work at large.
The man who has come up with all this is an ex-Financial Times journalist. Overell’s old beat, labour, was honed in a country dominated by strife. At 36, he now works for a think tank called the Work Foundation, whose job it is to supply businesses with ever-changing ways of looking at the way we work. And although he devotes a lot of attention to hairdressers and celebrities, Overell’s study is a serious look at the evolution of making a living, jam-packed with statistics, philosophy and sociology, all dating back to the 1950s and leading up to one conclusion. Work is no longer about labour; its very nature has changed forever.
Fiftyyears ago, Overell says, atradesperson worked in a factory, or an ad agency, or sold brushes door-to-door. There was usually a tangible product. Even into the 1970s, he says, “You could point at what you did: you could look at it and touch it.” By the time the dotcom boom hit in the 1990s, value moved to intangibles, like ideas, which could be used over and over without ever being exhausted. Then came a move to outsourcing and freelancing. Creative thinkers such as German sociologist Ulrich Beck warned that the entire social order was about to disintegrate. Overell quotes this passage from Beck’s book, The Brave New World ofWork: “Everything that is most sacred to people—prosperity, social position, personality, meaning in life, democ-
racy [and] political cohesion” depends on “participation in paid employment.” The socalled end of work was a big theme. This study has no big themes, Overell says. “I am trying to boil it down and personalize it; discuss the future in symbolic terms.”
Hairdressers may seem an odd symbol, but any woman who is transformed every six weeks by a wizard with scissors knows how valuable they are. Overell chose hairdressers, and their cousins the aestheticians, masseurs and personal trainers, because, to him, they are the new face of manual work. Instead of making things like cabinets out of wood, they mould, smooth and pummel people into shape. They “speak to a society transfixed by the pursuit of physical excellence,” he writes. “The rise of their craft is a reflection of the prioritization of appearance, of perception, of the power of identity, of the power of lifestyle.” Hairdressers are also the new therapists, he adds—they are paid friends.
Celebrities invite even more eye-rolling. “But celebrities are not only a feature of modern life,” he says. “They are a force and there are aspects of what they do all day that say a lot about what we do all day: we are all becoming our work to some extent.” Celebrities are always their own brand; they don’t ever turn themselves off. So if common folk, like celebrities, are now their jobs, whatever happened to that balance still touted in women’s magazines? Overell laughs. It’s gone, he says. To succeed, today’s workers need to be naturally, constantly ambitious. “Total work” is a dictate of the times. In England, he says, that means putting in a 12-hour day and then downing martinis with your peers. Like movie stars, the modern worker is always their office self.
Management consultants are iconic for a different reason: they are the archetypal knowledge workers, the hired guns who stand for the love of change in modern companies. “Organizations reconfigure themselves all the time,” Overell says. “What has brought them to this path? Competitive pressure is the usual argument. But even industries with monopolies love changing.” Management consultants have the added edge of being
mysterious—the power of the outsider. As for managers, they demonstrate society’s love for organization. They place themselves at the centre of a vast social network and their people skills are more important than any technical expertise they may have. But their biggest task, says Overell, is effectiveness.
If this study seems to point to the vacuousness of workaday lives, Overell is the first to agree. “There is a feeling that ideology is gone,” he says. Heartlessness rules. And yet, one thing has stayed the same. Just like those drones with lunch pails, most people today say they like their jobs. At the end of the day, according to Overell, “it is very important for people to feel they have done something worthwhile.” Even if they can’t touch it. M
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