The way we work now


We work fewer hours, yet feel busier than ever. We've learned new skills, but must complete more tasks. A new series starting today examines Ireland's changing workplaces

Don’t tell your boss, but we are living in an age of a historically short working week. The average Irish male works 12 hours less a week than his counterpart did 60 years ago. What’s more, Ireland has one of the shortest working weeks in the EU.

But anyone who has answered an office email after midnight, or whose weekend is taken up with prepping for a Monday-morning appointment, will know that some statistics are lies.

Behind the averaged figures are plenty of overworked employees as well as people who are working fewer hours but not by choice. Underemployment, especially in manual services, is a particular feature of the recession in Ireland.

What’s more, even if you are working marginally fewer hours than your peers of yesteryear, there are reasons it doesn’t feel like that.

“Even though people are spending less time at work, the boundary between work and non-work has become blurred over time,” says Bill Roche, Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the UCD School of Business. “You might say the hand of the employer has managed to reach further into people’s family and non-work time than would have been the case two decades ago.”

Add to this the burden of commuting times. While it has levelled off since the recession began, the average worker still spends almost nine days each year getting to and from work. That’s not to mention time spent on upskilling and networking, or the impact of technology which has made the notion of “clocking out” virtually redundant.

It’s a long way from the 15-hour week John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s. Within a century, he said, living standards in “progressive countries” would be between four and eight times higher. Work, he believed, would be displaced by leisure.

But what Keynes and his disciples didn’t count on was people’s attachment to ever-increasing living standards.

“If you look at the big cycles of working time reduction, they have actually occurred at times of recession,” says Roche. “At times of economic growth or rising living standards, the pattern has not been one in which people take more time off work or demand reduced hours; people become very accustomed to living standards and progressivity, and the lure of leisure seems to get buried or subdued in that process.”

The main factor behind the reduction in average working hours over recent decades is the increased participation of women in the workforce and the growth, in tandem, of part-time, job-share and temporary employment arrangements. In the same period, there have been other positive developments for workers, from increased wages to improved employment rights.

But there has also been an erosion of traditional career patterns and, says Roche, “the distribution of working time has become more corporatised; more people are working shifts and on weekends, or on call.”

“The biggest buzzword now is ‘engagement’,” says Dr Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist at DCU Business School. “Engaged workers will give themselves to the task; they will go the extra mile, meet more difficult deadlines and hit higher targets and will end up more satisfied because they are more engaged in their work.”

That’s the theory. In truth, she says, “there are a lot of contradictory messages. The gun is to your head and you’d better be engaged or you will be out the door.

“So you have a higher amount of work intensification going on. And there’s a big difference between employees who are saddled with debt versus younger ones who can bounce around the world at the drop of a hat.”

Work-related stress

The fallout can be seen in work-related stress – estimated to affect more than a quarter of employees and to cost the economy €200 million a year, according to a report late last year for the Health and Safety Authority. A culture of being “always on” has become normal in certain professions, and “it raises the demand for everybody,” says Kirrane (who answers an email from this newspaper at 1.05am).

An additional threat is “toxic leadership” and, she says, companies need to be careful not to let management standards slip because of the recession. “It can be found at any time but it’s possible destructive leaders could become more destructive because the context is so difficult and they can’t see the trail of destruction in their wake. All they are thinking is: ‘Look, I am keeping all these people in their jobs’.”

Placing the current workplace strains in a broader context, Roche says: “Job skill and job autonomy on average are rising in Ireland; that is the bright side. But the darker side is there is also evidence that the intensity with which people have felt they have been required to work has risen significantly.”

Moreover, increased autonomy can sometimes seem like an illusion. While people are freer to organise their work, their performance is more closely managed. As Kirrane puts it: “You have so-called empowered workers but you are only empowered until it blows up in your face and then you are to blame.”

Roche points out that the trends towards increased flexibility and doing more for less “are coming anyway” regardless of the recession. Last year, with researchers at UCD and Queen’s University Belfast, he conducted a major survey of human resources practices in the recession, surveying more than 400 managers in a range of public and private companies, including Irish Life and Permanent, Sherry FitzGerald and Ericsson.

“What we found is there isn’t any strong evidence that firms have exploited the recession to fundamentally transform workplaces, or work and employment patterns, to, for example, make them more insecure for employees. What you actually see as the dominant pattern in Ireland, in the recession, is firms battling to sustain pre-recession work and employment practices.

“That’s an important thing because some of the commentary in the media and academic commentary on the recession is quite apocalyptic: that it’s going to fundamentally alter, or ‘hollow out’, work and employment. For some, sure, change is occurring. But firms are not in any way systematically saying, ‘Let’s not waste a good recession’.

“What has actually happened, for the most part, is that firms have been so preoccupied with staying afloat that there has not been any coherent medium-term template or paradigm of the what future should hold.”

There have been significant changes in recent years, such as increased outsourcing of “things like marketing, IT, human resources and lots of what in the past would have been seen as high-end areas of management activity” but this is mirroring international trends rather than being recession-specific.

The percentage of workers on temporary contracts has risen slightly in recent years but only to mid-1990s levels. In 2011, 9.9 per cent of the Irish workforce was categorised as “temporary” compared with the EU average of 15.8 per cent. “There has not been an explosive growth”, says Roche.

Outsourcing work to agencies has also risen in recent years but the trend has levelled off “now that employers have to pay the same rate by law”, noted Siptu economist Loraine Mulligan. Trade unions have greater concerns now about what she calls the “culling of hours in areas like catering, cleaning, security and hotels”.

In a survey last summer, almost four out of 10 Mandate union members reported a fall in take-home pay. Retail workers reported a drop in hours of 4.3 per cent. For part-time workers the decrease was 5.6 per cent. For student workers it was 12.9 per cent.

Young age profile

Unions also cite a creep towards unpaid work, especially in areas such as acting and the arts (a long-term problem) and internships (a more recent one).

Of the latter, however, Roche says, they are “likely to be a cycle-specific development”.

As the economy recovers “you will go back to a situation where employers will start to fight each other to pick off people in the labour market and they will not achieve that by unpaid internships”.

The recession, then, may not change the nature of work for good. But might demographics? Ireland has the youngest age-profile in the EU, according to Eurostat, and some believe that, as the current batch of bright-young-things enters the workforce in large numbers, they’ll transform it.

“They’re bringing a completely different set of values to the workplace”, says Kirrane. “They’re not interested in a permanent pensionable job. They’re not interested in someone to mind them . . . They are interested in experiences and satisfaction and will move if the work is not satisfying for them.

“Organisations can satisfy that today because they are not providing permanent pensionable jobs. So there’s a completely different psychological relationship, and a really different type of commitment, between the employer and the employee. It’s far more contractual.”

Ever fond of jargon, careers experts dub this younger demographic Generation Y. Loosely defined as aged from mid-teens to 31 (even those who use the term admit the boundaries are a bit arbitrary), Generation Y people are tech-savvy, fast learners and casual in their approach to authority.

“People think Generation Y is entitled and narcissistic but they get a hard rap,” says Clare Mulligan, a Dublin-based consultant who advises companies on how to utilise the different generations in their workforce.

“We have created this generation who have very high self-esteem. They come from a type of schooling where everyone gets a medal for running a race, and they have this expectation they will succeed.

“They don’t believe in nine-to-five. They are task-driven. They can’t understand why you’d stick around in the office if you’ve done what you need to. They don’t like meetings, they don’t play office politics, and they’re not very good at networking face-to-face.”

While Generation Y are sometimes perceived as less loyal, Mulligan maintains they rather “look for companies which have the same values as them”. If the employer can convince them that they have the right sort of values – like Google with its “don’t be evil” slogan – then it’s a win-win situation.

While older generations would talk of their goal being a “work-life balance”, says Mulligan, “Generation Y think that is dated. They see it as work-life integration.”

For example, “they believe they should go out and socialise with the people they work with: companies should let them go and have the time for that” .

This breaking down of barriers between work and non-work tends to horrify older workers who perhaps, having being around the block, have a less idealistic view of the labour market. Spare a thought for Generation X (roughly categorised as aged 32-47), Baby Boomers (aged 48-66) and Traditionalists (aged 67+), for many of whom going paintballing with workmates on a Sunday afternoon would be close to torture.

Unlike Generation Y people, these workers tend to have more financial commitments and responsibilities and, for them, job security is a very real concern. As Roche points out, they’re coming under fire from a number of sides.

Burnout in mid-20s

“For example, the job security of those who occupy admin, white-collar managerial roles has been declining relative to non-management roles for quite some considerable time internationally. Time was, if you had an office job or a management job you were much more buffered from cyclical downturns than your counterparts who had blue-collar jobs. That’s a big change.

Also important is the decline in the value of pensions, and a shift from defined benefit to defined contribution schemes. “So, apart from the fact that there have been changes in people’s job security in terms of the risk of becoming unemployed,” says Roche, “there has also been a significant change in terms of the security of their incomes and the security of their pensions.”

It’s not all good news at the moment for Generation Y either. “There is some concern about levels of depression in Generation Y,” says Mulligan, whose background is in financial services. “We see a lot of burnout in the mid-20s because people feel they are not achieving.”

Also, psychological profiling suggests Generation Y is “later in reaching adulthood” than previous generations. Studies cite deficiencies in emotional intelligence, listening skills and empathy, all regarded as “quite female skills”, Mulligan notes.

The jury is out, then, on whether Generation Y will transform the workplace, or just turn out to be General X in hipper footwear. The field of work and organisational management is littered with false predictions.

One much-trumpeted forecast was the emergence of the “boundaryless” or “portfolio” career whereby workers would accumulate a number of income streams through the sale of different skills. This concept of work, popularised by Charles Handy and other management gurus, puts the onus on workers to be their own career development officers. The aim – to use the jargon – is a “protean career”, taken from the name of the Greek sea god Proteus who kept changing his shape to avoid being captured.

Mulligan believes this model is becoming more pronounced, from “mumtrepreneurs” to ex-CEOs who reinvent themselves as troubleshooting contractors. According to a Harvard Business Review, feature, “The Rise of the Supertemp” is upon us.

Prof Roche is more sceptical, however. “There’s a good deal of futurology or quasi-astrology still in this area. While the idea of the ‘boundaryless’ career was quite plausible because a lot of it was driven by career patterns in the US . . . the evidence is it doesn’t hold a lot of water.

“If you look at career tenure – the amount of time people stay with the given employer – there isn’t any evidence that it has changed a lot. There certainly has been a fraying around the edges of the traditional career pattern, and if you look at managers in particular they are less certain of career progression within traditional boundaries.

“Overall it still seems to be the case that organisations value career progression within their boundaries for people they view as talented people of high potential.”

There is a sense also that “portfolio career” is just a fancy name for something those in manual services and trades have been doing for years – namely multiple jobs. CSO figures show the number of people with second jobs has increased steadily since the 1980s, reaching a peak of 55,200 in 2008 before slipping to 38,400 in 2011.


The recession has had an impact. An ESRI report last month classified one in 25 people in the State as “working poor”. Some 44 per cent of these were self-employed.

John Deely of careers coaching firm Pinpoint agrees the “portfolio” career may have been talked up too much by the industry. It’s a better fit for certain professions, like media and technology, than others.

But he says there are new forms of work opening up. What’s exciting people at present is “something around what the internet is enabling” for individual workers, specifically “using the scope of the internet to find people who need your skills. This is becoming more prevalent.”

A living example of this is Jamie O’Connell who has reinvented himself several times since graduating with an engineering degree in 2000. “If you find a company for which you want to work, the best way to approach them – even if there is no job advertised – is to come up with a plan for how you can help that company,” says O’Connell, who spent time on the dole in 2003, completed an MBA in 2011, and now works for a German software company.

Straddling the Generation X and Y identities, he has no problem with answering emails at unsociable hours, has fun with colleagues, and is passionate about his field of expertise.

He admits he had “never heard of the term ‘portfolio career’” until recently but “it does seem like I fit the description somewhat”. However, he can also see pitfalls with the protean model.

“There’s a danger of being seen as – or even becoming – a ‘jack of all trades, but master of none’. There is a need for ‘specialisation’ in order to stand out in any one field, or in a job interview.”

Whatever the future holds for the Irish worker then, be it corporate beast, freelancer, or Proteus himself, he or she will have to change. “It’s definitely a case that I was my own career development officer,” O’Connell says.

“Even when I was in school we were being told that it’s becoming normal to not have a ‘job for life’. Change is difficult, however, and I still know people who are locked into a ‘career’ by choice.”

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