On the day after the August bank holiday Aditya Chakrabortty caught the mood of many Guardian readers as they left their holiday clothes behind them, changed into their suits and reluctantly sat down at their desk to carry on with the daily grind. He called it “the post-holiday stress disorder.” He went on “the truth is that you’re probably right to hate being back in a harness”, for most of us (managers in particular) have little room for manoeuvre. We have to conform to a set of instructions designed by somebody else.

Janet Lawley, a long time fellow of The Initiative, has just written a most interesting observation on this article which it is my pleasure to publish. It is longer than my usual blog but that it is because it is so worthwhile reading. It goes as follows.

This article explores why so many no longer like going to work. Like most people there were mornings when I wanted to be seduced by a warm duvet, a good book, a sunny garden or the distant hill but my work brought me far more than a monthly pay cheque and I suppose I was lucky My family believed that life was about more than enjoying yourself; we had a duty to serve, talents which allowed us to be of service and the challenge was to develop those talents and find a fulfilling career, sharing your gifts and making life better for others while knowing the pleasure of a job well done. Nothing less than your best was ever good enough but that did not mean coming first or even near the top. With only a very moderate income, my father was a chauffeur and my mother a primary teacher, we lived a rich, varied and very happy life. Work was enriching and carried out at home, in the community (for the church Christmas Fair for example) or for neighbours as well as for your living – much more than for a wage.

The Oxford English dictionary begins its definition of Work “the application of energy to some purpose”. It can mean ‘achievement’ or ‘an accomplishment’ and the suggestion that it is just a means of earning money comes a long way down the extensive list. It is a job which is a piece of work done for hire or profit. I was lucky to teach when there was room and time, and indeed an expectation, that individuality, creativity, thinking for yourself was what it was about. A summer as a student stacking shelves in a supermarket in Torquay was a good way to enjoy sun and sand and the sea. There was plenty of space for thinking there, even for a temporary student. I tried new displays, new arrangements, new combinations of goods, invented and made a simple trolley. On another summer experience I worked in a cafe and designed a pre-computer spread-sheet to make the cashing up process simpler and transparent. Plenty of opportunities.

Yet Irena Grugulis reports “Little room for manoeuvre” in supermarkets today even in those tasks where skilled butchers or bakers are employed. All comes pre-sliced and pre-packed, dough frozen ready to bake. Almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shop-floor worker to store manager “was set out, standardised and even scripted by the experts at head office”. The research paper for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) published Professor Grugulis’s research on August 3rd, 2010. She asks how far the low skills levels and limited discretion allowed to those at work can be reconciled with the so-called high-skill./ high-quality economy for which the country is striving to prepare its young people. The world we find around us does not seem to need large numbers of graduates. The principle task of many managers is “simply to encourage employees to greater efforts” to meet “very demanding performance targets over which they have little, if any, control”. The research finds things starkly different from the “product knowledge of exert assistants in France”, or “the wide-ranging skills of trained workers in Germany” or “impressive educational achievements of Chinese retail workers”.

Chakrabortty reminds us how far away that all seems from “the hi-tech grotto where people are free to exercise initiative and innovation” foretold by Charles Handy and Tom Peters. “Too much routine and control becomes hard to bear when you have the qualifications which entitle you to expect more” he writes. More skilled workers with decreasing influence over how to do their daily tasks seems a combination doomed to make going to work a daily grind. Official skills surveys show the proportion of workers believing that they have much influence over how their job is done has fallen from 57% in 1992 to 43% in 2006, with a job more about meeting targets or central criteria than anything else. Those feeling out of control include teachers, national health workers, lawyers and soft-ware engineers. One respondent to Chakrabortty’s article wrote “Your only responsibility is to follow corporate guidelines. It can only be called ‘mental circumcision’.”

In the UK the experts seem increasingly to be in the head office. The research in France and Germany and China found them on the shop floor. What is an expert, you ask? Though expertise is difficult to achieve without first becoming a specialist, it is much more than specialization. It requires the ability to think widely, looking for connections, seeing across boundaries and thinking in the specific and the abstract. It helps people of all ages and disciplines to break out of a set way of doing things, seeing new possibilities and it is the key to progress.

“We have got Freedom”, SKOPE’s paper number 95, July 2010, examines the claim that the Scandinavian social-democratic model better supports forms of work organisation which give employees higher levels of autonomy and control. In a comparison between teachers in Norway and in the UK it finds “Scandinavia is indeed distinctive with Norwegian teachers enjoying higher levels of job quality with a strong degree of autonomy, discretion and decision making influence”. Too many relatively low skilled, tightly controlled jobs in the UK led to the lowest levels of task variety and discretion amongst shop assistants, care workers, food processing operatives and call centre agents in a recent European five country study. To them must now be added professional jobs, hide-bound by bureaucracy, stifled by centrally determined targets, greater surveillance than ever before and a growing gap between professionals and senior management. Following specified performance criteria leaves UK teachers little time for variety or discussion or addressing the needs of the individual. Norwegian school guidelines are less prescriptive and focus more upon “outcomes” allowing more space for local decision-making. With local administration there is less inspection. “We don’t like it. We trust each other” said a representative from the Ministry of Education. The conclusion of the research? “Norway provides an example of an alternative way of managing, not based on low trust or requiring extensive systems of monitoring and control.”

In “Skills are not enough”, the PRAXIS paper of March 2010, Phil Brown calls this extension of Taylorism from manual work to skilled and graduate jobs, ‘Digital Taylorism’. He concludes that “in the UK permission to think” will be “restricted to a small group of knowledge workers“. The rest of the work will be turned into routine and farmed off to Eastern Europe or India. No wonder such large numbers leave teacher training and quit teaching after a few years. It is hard work constantly in the public eye, it is not yours to control and thinking is not encouraged. I was lucky to have taught when I did. Brown concludes “There is already evidence of an explosion in the global supply of graduate labour and some emergent countries can compete on both quality and cost”.

John Abbott has often called his lectures and courses “What kind of Education for What kind of World?” It is rare these days to stop to ask the big questions. If you have time to do so, (and if some of us don’t make time the crisis in education will not be solved however well intentioned the decision makers), begin by asking what kind of world we are preparing those young people for? To encourage self reliance, free thinking, creativity and innovation, to encourage further study to degree level for half the population and then to fail to value or respect or use those skills is to create a more disillusioned, instant pleasure-seeking generation where affluenza runs out of control and work is never understood as “The application of energy to some purpose”. We need experts who see across the boundaries and make connections and not just the specialists whose search for the perfect model has led us into a cul de sac where a one-size-fits all rulebook, with targets, is no longer about the exciting differences of places and communities and people.

Both Janet and I would be most interested in reactions to these ideas.