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Why are working life researchers so reluctant to talk about the future?

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Karlstad Universitet

This summer Ann Bergman really managed to ignite the debate on working life research. In an article in the Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies she asked why working life researchers are so uninterested in the future.

“If working life researchers don’t talk about the future, other groups of people will. This is about taking charge of how society is described,” she says.

The article was based on a keynote presentation which she gave to the 7th Nordic Working Life Conference in Gothenburg in 2014.

Ann Bergman“I have had many reactions both to the presentation and the article. Some think what I said is very important, others believe researchers should only busy themselves with research. Futurologists as a group are mocked,” she points out.

Ann Bergman is a Professor of working life science at the Karlstad University. She is quick to point out that she does not believe working life researchers should attempt to predict the future. 

“But this is about finding a way to highlight research results, to take up some space in the public debate.”

 

Only Marxists and feminists know what they want

She believes the working life area is lacking in visions. The only ones who come clear about wanting an alternative society are Marxists and feminists. 

The reason this issue interests her is her work going through futurology studies together with Jan Ch Karlsson and Jonas Axelsson, when they discovered that working life researchers rarely wrote about the future and futurologists rarely wrote about working life. 

“It seems the lack of interest is mutual. Today’s futurologist rarely write about working life. Since 1995 only two percent of articles in Futures, the best known publication for social and behavioural science, have been about working life. What is really missing is articles about working conditions,” she says.

Where is gender, class and ethnicity?

“When we studied working life research and its view of the future, we mainly discovered what was was missing. Despite the big changes when it comes to gender, ethnicity and class, not many studies consider how this will influence working life.”

Another group of people focuses on the future instead — organisation development consultants.

“They enjoy authors like Richard Donkin and his book ‘The Future of Work’ or Charles Handy’s book by the same title, and they relate to these.”

Richard Donkin cover

Working life researchers also quote other authors, like Guy Standing and his precariat class concept — a new underclass suffering bad working conditions — or Thomas Piketty, who specialises in economic injustice and the ultra-rich’s share of the world’s total assets.

“A lot of working life research is what I would call ‘warning light research’, where the researchers will highlight something which is considered to be problematic and which could become even more problematic in the future.”

All behavioural research is also affected by the access to new digital information sources, like how we behave on the internet, what we buy online, what we tweet about and share on Facebook. 

Destructive or creative?

In the preface to his book, Richard Donkin describes how he sits in his home office and watches his children build a snowman, with stones as buttons and a carrot nose. When he looks up a moment later the snowman has already been demolished. 

“I felt slightly irritated — all that time spent creating something, simply to kick it down. It seemed a waste and so uncharacteristic of the boys. Is this what their mother and I had reared them to do?” he asks himself.

He didn’t have to worry. Within half an hour the boys had presented a 30 second long music video with the snowman playing the main part, complete with a surprise ending. Before the day was over the video had been put on YouTube and had been seen by thousands of people. The boys had demonstrated all the skills needed to work in the creative industries. 

“First there was the concept. Then there was building on the idea, use of technology, sampling playlists, matching music to action, editing, then marketing and distribution.”

Richard Donkin asks what happens to such skills if working life fails to adapt. 

His description is attractive. Who wouldn’t want their children to get a job where they could develop their creativity? The cover of his book has a picture of a young woman working on her laptop by the edge of a swimming pool, and one of his main theories is that work and spare time is about to merge:

“We don’t stop living when we go to work and, very often today, we don’t stop working when we arrive home,” writes Richard Donkin.

Stimulating symbiosis?

The flip side to the new internet-based and creative working life is the time trap where work and spare time do not merge into a stimulating symbiosis, but were private life collides with working life with psychological problems as a result.

According to Ann Berman, these visions of the future are also being used in the competition between businesses and other organisations. 

“They often make a point out of how important it is to be first, to always be at the cutting edge. We must be prepared for the future and be the first to go into it. It seems like some people believe it is possible to be the first ones to enter the future.

“What I think is important when it comes to the future is that we need to be responsible for it. We should ask ourselves what kind of future we want, both when it comes to working life and society. That’s where working life researchers’ voices are important,” she says.

In Norway working life researchers have taken Ann Bergman on her word by carefully examining the visions for the new working life. Is it really true that a new kind of worker has emerged, who prioritises other values compared to before? You can read more about that analysis here:

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