Autumn has always seemed to me to represent fresh beginnings much more than spring. It might be counterintuitive or reflective of some hidden naturist tendency, but I love the way in which deciduous trees throw off their dusty foliage as the dog days of summer fade to dusk. A long, langourous stretching of naked limbs in that peculiar silvery light. And of course there’s the glorious new palette that washes over the landscape as chlorophyll pigment production in leaves decreases. After two weeks in hot, sunny (and undoubtedly beautiful) Corsica over the summer, I returned home longing for a frosty morning, the bejewelled webs of overnight spiders and thoughts of long walks on blustery days with scudding clouds, scarves and wellies and the musty smell of leaf mould and bonfires.
Swimming here, in the froth on top of the coffee as it were, working life seems to be all about freshness. Fresh ideas, innovation, disruptive thinking, agility, creativity, re-shaping and re-imagining. Knowledge workers, shining light into dark corners. The pace of the passing of seasons in the world of work appears accelerated, backed by a soundtrack of thundering bandwagons chasing the sun to a horizon that will never be reached. This is the VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And almost entirely an artificial human construct. At the bleeding egde, we’re mainlining these four words for the catalytic high of meaningfulness. Regenerating faster than a dalek can negotiate a flight of stairs. A contemptuous, pernickety picking at the loose threads of the comfy sweater of familiarity.
Beneath the froth, in the murk that passes for working life for the rest of us, the passing seasons continue to come with a monotonous predictability. Work a necessary evil, to be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. Where work/life balance is perpetually skewed in someone else’s favour. When someone shines a torch under this rock it’s all too often to put down ant powder, the language more sinister in tone: wastage; turnover; attrition; assets; resources. A workplace where flexibility means having cheese instead of ham in your sandwich at lunchtime and agility is what you need to pick orders in a warehouse. Finding meaning in the bottom of a mop bucket and seen as noble savages by the more sentimental denizens of the ivory towers of the socially-networked, metropolitan elite. Hobbes saw human life as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Despite our hyper connectedness, for many people, in a work context, the only word that no longer holds true is short. Thanks to the avarice of the erstwhile masters of the universe and medical advances we’re all getting to work a lot longer than ever before, for less.
It’s been said that the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Some people haven’t even had a chance to catch up with the present. It is just possible that we’re entering a new age of enlightenment about working life. The political ideals of Enlightenment 1.0 influenced, among much else, the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. And yet inequality of freedom, choice, flexibility, autonomy, mastery and purpose at work persist. Those who concern themselves with re-shaping work need to keep inequality front of mind so everyone gets a chance to shine.
Their moment in the sun.
Picture credit: Lars Van De Goor
Postscript: My thanks go to three chums from Twitter who kindly supplied the three words this post is based around. Pernickety came from @HRTinker, Fresh from @MalcolmLouth and Deciduous from @AilsaSuttie.