Comparisons with May 1968 have been hard to resist in Paris this month as noisy students take to the streets to protest against capitalism and an unpopular government. Also unavoidable is the irony that while 48 years ago the protesters were in revolt against stifling corporatism and chanting ‘power to the imagination’, this generation would like nothing better than to inherit the safe jobs and secure pension rights at the same companies that their long-haired grandparents so despised.
That of course is one measure of the extent to which the world of work has changed in the interim. The focus of today’s protests is government labour legislation that, modestly by Anglo-Saxon standards, aims to make it easier for employers to dismiss people in times of economic stress and to inject more flexibility into the notorious 35-hour week. The protesters see both as further blows for insecurity against hard-won employment rights.
There is an important point here. A running debate at each annual meeting of the Global Peter Drucker Forum pitches faith in gung-ho Californian techno-optimism as potential purveyor of a new surge of prosperity and employment against European-style social measures to protect or at least prolong existing jobs.
Yet much as I sympathise with the European view in general, and with French youth’s identification of itself as ‘la génération précaire’ in particular, the debate is already out of date. President François Hollande’s political ambition to boost employment totals is equally understandable, and equally doomed. It’s a fight neither side can win, and those seriously concerned about jobs should save their energy for bigger and even tougher ones to come.
As ever, it’s important to be careful what you wish for. To begin with, the cost of French employment protection is appallingly high. This is only partly a matter of employment itself. While French youth joblessness at 24 per cent is obviously unacceptable, it’s not clear that alternative employment policies are much better. The ‘successful’ UK, for example, suffers from a toxic tradeoff of its own: while its nominal unemployment rate is half the French 10 per cent, UK pay rates are so low, and contracts so precarious, that employment à l’anglaise, and draconian welfare measures that drive it, are not so much a route out of poverty as a high road into it. So much for ‘flexibility’.
A less obvious part of the price for making it so hard to move people on is poisonous French workplace relations. Most new jobs in France aren’t permanent but short-term renewable contracts. But even the lot of those in permanent employment is less enviable than you might think. French employees are among the most stressed in the world, according to a recent report. One powerful reason is a feeling of being trapped, unable to leave permanent jobs people don’t like or have grown out of for fear of never getting another. Another is that French workplace relations increasingly resemble a zero-sum game which both sides treat as warfare. One tactic used by some employers, even large state-owned ones, is to make life so unpleasant for unwanted individuals that they eventually leave of their own accord. HR departments have become departments of dirty tricks. Favoured methods of dismissal by 1000 cuts include bundling off managers to work in a different department or unit, call centres being a destination of choice, transferring workers to a distant part of the country or simply cutting off communications. There’s even a name for this limbo – ‘le placard’, the closet. A spate of workplace suicides made headlines made headlines a year or two ago.
There is of course no defence for such behaviour. But even if it could be stopped at source (it is already illegal); and even if company law were reformed (as it should be) to weaken shareholder value as the corporation’s motive force in favour of greater duty of care for other stakeholders, there are good reasons to believe that the era of large companies as mass employers is over. In his fascinating book The Vanishing Corporation (of which more on another occasion), Jerry Davis notes that the industrial-age connection between corporate growth and employment has broken down. Thanks to technology, a company can now be simultaneously ‘radically tiny’ in employment and globally dominant in its sector. Unlike industrial plants, websites and platforms such as Uber and Arbnb don’t need human bodies to scale. One bold London start-up believes it would need no more than 30 employees to turn itself into a global brand used by billions.
And even that isn’t all. A final disrupter of the old employment patterns is the steady upward march of life expectancy. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott eloquently outline in their self-explanatorily entitled The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, even if all the other factors undermining today’s employment practice could be nullified, life itself will have the last word. When half of those born today will live a century or more, each part of today’s linear three-stage life – education, work, retirement – will have to be rethought. Each becomes more personal, more fragmented, more a matter of personal choice. Individuals will have to take more responsibility for their working life, and organisations, for which anyway talent and career planning will become fiendishly complicated, correspondingly less. The inevitable temptation will be for more companies to opt for the ‘plug-and-play’ model of HR pioneered in the so-called sharing or gig economy.
As Davis points out, the shifts now afoot could lead to a ‘new dark age’ for labour – or the opposite, the liberation from corporate paternalism that the May 1968 protesters demanded. In the same way, a 100-year life could be a burden or a gift. At this stage the options are open – each requires choices. But to reach the sunlit uplands we need to start thinking through the implications now. This is what Paris students should be debating at their nightly ‘Nuit debout’ (‘Up all night’) meetings at the Place de la République, not a Pyrrhic last-ditch defence of a system whose day has gone. In another 50 years, their own grandchildren would have cause to say 'merci'.