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If work is a human right, how can it feel so wrong!

If work is a human right, how can it feel so wrong!

By Lorraine Silverman of Training & Development Options who can be contacted at

1. Introduction

Ask a group of people to freely associate to the word, "Work". Interesting responses. Far less hackneyed than the responses to some other emotive words like "Sex", "Politics" and "Religion". Evidently, "work" is a highly emotive word.

The emotion around the concept of work fuels much activity for writers, speakers, researchers, politicians, people development practitioners, career consultants and those driving our National Skills Development Strategy. They remind us that we are living in chaotic times. We are told that unprecedented change - a chaos that seems to be cyclical as the world hurtles ahead in its next round - is part of the ever-faster quest for "better". And it is for better or worse that we choose our response to the next cycle of change. Our work lives will be fraught with frustration or buoyant with opportunity.

2. Cutting people off from their livelihood

From the perspective of "worse" we see the work world's getting rid of jobs as cutting many people off from their livelihoods. The human casualties have the cold consolation that it's nothing personal - they're targeting the position, not the person. So why do so many persons feel so insecure? It's not the positions that go to stress consultants, to counsellors, to doctors, to the bottle store, or to pieces - it's the prospectless people losing the positions. Also in line are the now-overloaded ones "lucky" enough to have retained or obtained positions, and who must each deliver what used to be the work done by several conscientious people before the "rightsizing". (Oh, the irony of the term!) Right size, for whom?

From the perspective of "better" we see the cutting of jobs as liberating the individual to try out new ways of working:

>> Opt for flexible workplace practices

>> Go freelance

>> Become a professional temp

>> Become an entrepreneur

>> Hook in to the National Skills Development Strategy

>> Apply for a Learnership

>> Get a qualification

In a nutshell, vuk' uzenzele - wake up and do for yourself.

So many options! So, why don't people feel spoilt for choice?

3. The onslaught of change

A song that was popular in the heyday of some 80-something-year-olds (who have lived through a couple of changes in their time) makes a pertinent point. In the lyrics of the ditty, a perplexed Mr. Gallagher seeks answers to some of life's mysteries from self-proclaimed oracle, Mr. Sheen. Sheen's oversimplified information sharing is not unlike the advice and direction given by change agents to the change affected:

"It's quite simple, Mr. Gallagher."
"Ah, but can you do it, Mr. Sheen?"

Well, it seems that the Sheens - the group with the answers - don't have to do it .yet! They are driving the trend towards an increasingly jobless workplace, even making the work rules and setting up the compassionless consolations.

It's the Gallaghers - the recipients of the "career advice" - who will have to learn how to do it. They are in the front lines, facing what often feels like the onslaught of change, which they experience as changing skill requirements, lack of relevance of experience, job loss, employment insecurity, barriers to accessing work, to mention some of the more commonly expressed.

4. The vicissitudes of the new economy

Sadly, the Sheens appear to be right. They are simply actioning the reality that futurists have been warning us to take heed of over the last decade or more. The likes of Jeremy Rifkin, William Bridges, Faith Popcorn, James Dale Davidson & William Rees-Mogg, Wolfgang Grulke and our own Clem Sunter have long been spelling out the likely impact of globalisation and science fiction-like technological advances (amongst other things) will have on industries and organisations.

According to, William Bridges, the changes we are experiencing globally constitute a major job shift - a move from the Industrial Era to the Information Era. The last time we experienced such a phenomenon was about 200 years ago, when the unstoppable shift from the Agricultural Era to the Industrial Era dramatically changed the way people the world over lived and worked. Despite the Luddites' attempts to smash the machines that would put many out of work, the machines and factories came and with them the largely reluctant acceptance of "jobs" - and we became what we feared - wage slaves, bottoming out as job addicts.

Writers like Ralph Estes, Anita Roddick, Hernando de Soto and Richard Douthwaite sound alarm bells. They bring to light the perspective that these changes do not necessarily constitute progress, particularly when viewed holistically. They push us to consider aspects like: the tyranny of the profit motive; the spiritually empty drive for things material; the earth-ravishing effects of production; the impoverishing effects of capitalism; the toll on the individual, only a few of whom will make it from pawn in the system to the "Sovereign Individual" (J.D. Davidson & W. Rees-Mogg). The idea is to "Take it Personally" (Anita Roddick).

Disconcerting as it may be, it is far more comfortable to discuss the impact of change viewed from a global perspective. It becomes less comfortable as the perspective zooms in. When it's our country, our organisation, our family and ourselves, the reaction to the uncertainty can move from challenging the mind to disturbing the heart and sickening the gut. Whether we see the changes as predominantly positive or predominantly negative, the point is that they are set to impact on all aspects of the individual's world - work, finances, lifestyle, education, options available and - most importantly - one's sense of self-worth.

When people lose their jobs, work under the constant threat of being retrenched, or are forced by the need to earn to work in jobs that they're not cut out for, the right to work can't but feel wrong. Worried by the scarcity of jobs, many people cling desperately to what they have - at a tremendous personal cost.

5. Shift to becoming an individual contributor

The fact that there are fewer and fewer jobs out there is understandable in the context of the changing world of work. It's a logical outcome of the global shift to the Information Era. This does not mean that there's no work. We need to change the way we think about "employment". Being employed need not be defined by having a job. There are many alternatives to having a job.

Projects and contracts provide work in the short or medium term. The trick is to learn to access resources that will help people to find project work consistently. Professional temping is reported to be a high-growth industry in Western economies. Entrepreneurial enterprise opens up opportunities for self-employment, which can result in job / work creation as entrepreneurs either employ or contract people in to assist them. This provides another source of work – freelancing.

None of this is new. It’s simply becoming more prevalent. The increasing prevalence of more individual ways of working is hardly comforting. There are many who feel wronged. And they are right, for they have been wronged! Insufficient attention has been given to assisting newly "liberated" employees in making the transition to seemingly less secure ways of working. Many find themselves in a situation of forced transition. (It’s one thing to choose one’s liberation and quite another to have it thrust upon one!)

6. Supporting the shift to access work rather then jobs

The Gallaghers need to take individual and personal action, supported by the Sheens. One challenge to the Sheens – the agents of the re-structuring organisations – is to address the shortage of resources that can assist the Gallaghers in accessing work. Much attention has been given to the development of cutting-edge programmes, techniques and tools for managers to use in promoting the strategic changes to ensure that their organisation adapts to survive in a changing environment. Too often employees must make do with outmoded career progression programmes that just don’t cut the edge of anything. The blunt blade of conventional career management is not the tool to sustain their spirits as they are forced into the uncertain territory of a knowledge-based economy.

With all the restructuring and outsourcing activity, fulltime employees of the present are likely to be the part-time or freelance workforce of the future. It is incumbent upon organisations to provide a transformational experience that bolsters the spirit and empowers individuals in the organisation to take personal responsibility for their job satisfaction and career development.

The programmes should assist employees to become "retrenchment proof" in the sense that the severance does not take them by surprise and catch them unprepared. If job security is a thing of the past (which is a reality most of us have had to come to terms with) then employees need to prepare for it while they are still "safely" employed. Responsible human resource development practice should help people to develop a strong sense of who they are, what they have to offer, and how to establish new forms of work relationships to access work rather then jobs.

In this way, employees develop the capacity to respond to the changes in the economic environment in the same way as the organisations in which they operate. Individuals do not become disconnected from the greater environment just because they no longer work permanently in the organisation.

It is easier to claim the right to meaningful work if we feel that we have something worthwhile to contribute and if we know how to express what we can offer in a chosen work situation. If we learn how to take stock of what we know and what we can do, we can begin to establish our transferable skills – those skills that make us employable in a variety of roles and working relationships.

Many of these skills will have to be taken down from the shelf where we put them when we gave up earlier dreams, interests and even driving passions, for the sake of a "secure" job or a dependable field of work. Dust these off and some of them still gleam. Acknowledge the gleam and the passion emerges. Feel the passion and link it with opportunities that come with change, and suddenly the right to work begins to feel right as the work we do becomes an expression of who we are, rather than a determinant of our identities and our worth.

7. Conclusion

If we accept a new set of values, the Information Era holds the promise of a new deal for the individual. Barbara Moses, author of The Good News About Careers: How You’ll Be Working in the Next Decade highlights some of the changes we will soon be accepting as the norm.

>> Individuals recognise their responsibility in managing their own careers

>> Neither employer nor employee is beholden to the other

>> The work relationship is based on mutual exchange and mutual valuing

>> Both employers and employees need to sell themselves

>> Individuals need to develop a strong sense of employability

>> Organisations offer good money, satisfying learning and attractive opportunities

The individual will:

>> Choose their work, their colleagues, clients, and even their workspace

>> Create their own security

>> Believe in their own competence

>> Find work enjoyable and not separated from personal life

>> View failure as learning and take calculated risks

>> Design their own future, anticipating far less predictability and be ready for surprises

With this picture in mind, it makes sense to attend experientially based workshops that provide the opportunity for facilitated collaboration. This encourages people to do the inner work and exploration needed to generate creative options and build the self-confidence that it takes to make it in the new world of work.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

T: +27 (0)10 035 4185 (Office)

F: +27 (0)86 689 7862

Website: www.workinfo.com
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