Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 23 September 2013

The Age of the Sovereign Individual is upon us

The way we live and the way we work are being redefined. The traditional job is reinventing itself to be more sustainable in a modern information economy that works for the sovereign individual. It may not always work for the employer. The predictions made by William Rees-Mogg and James Dale-Davidson in their 1997 book “The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age” are coming true and are changing our lives, especially our working lives.

The power that always resided with the employers has shifted to the employees. Employees used to work by doing what they were told to. Now they are increasingly working how they want to. A job where the employers called all the shots kept their people at work from nine-to-five in large corporations where all management and control was top-down is no longer the norm. Employees now want greater flexibility, more free time and greater personal control over what they do and how they do it. And they want more meaning in their lives and in the work they do.

The much-publicised “Talent Wars” have been won by the talent. Most CEOs will admit that they don’t have all the skills and talent their businesses require, and to get it they will negotiate the most favourable terms. Retention of the most prized people is a major concern. The pendulum has swung. Even in this time of high unemployment, workers are still unwilling to sacrifice hard won independence.

Several trends have been developing and are now emerging in the mainstream. We know there is much more mobility and with it greater flexibility. Loyalty has shifted from the boss and the company to the self and individual. When a job no longer satisfies, move on. When the full time, all-day format doesn’t fit my life I negotiate a flexitime arrangement, or opt for contract work. And when I am not on the job in an office, I am on my laptop in a coffee shop. Or managing a client from my cell phone on the golf course

Now, technology is driving even more significant changes. An emerging trend, especially in the US, is to have one day off out of the regular workweek for “personal time”. With the boundaries between work and personal time becoming increasingly blurred, people are working even when they are not at work. E-mails are being answered into the night, global businesses want 24-hour availability and people complain that they are always tired. The solution is that companies are now being badgered to give employees one day off during the week; a Tuesday or a Thursday or whenever to do the personal things that a 24/7 lifestyle does not allow.

Riding on this wave, Dr Matthew Sleeth, a former physician who observed employee “burn-out” and destructive life-styles, has written a book, “24/6 a Prescription for a Healthier Happier Life”, in which he encourages companies to follow his advice and for employees to negotiate this new one day off per week benefit. It sounds new and quite radical but remember when Sundays were an enforced day of rest and when everything except the hospital was closed? Then about 30 years ago the 24/7 life started emerging and now it is firmly established. It is only the adherents of some orthodox faiths that still observe a Sabbath.

Tim Ferris wrote a cheeky book, “The Four Hour Workweek”, which takes the whole notion to a somewhat implausible but interesting level. He cites sound research to indicate that productivity can be maintained and even increased when people are not required to work full time.

Here is another one. The old notion of retirement also seems to be falling by the wayside. Healthy active people no longer want to stop working when they are told to do so by their employers. As seen in Marci Alhoher’s book, “The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life”, the idea trending now is that of a career where one can achieve significance and an opportunity to use unused skills.

The ultimate sovereign individual lifestyle is the “Portfolio Life” which has been discussed about before. This is when a single, full-time job in a specific place no longer has appeal and where an individual can craft a portfolio of several meaningful work streams. This is a creative way of designing a productive retirement, but it is also for people at all stages who want to do more with their lives and long for diversity. They want independence and opportunity to use all their skills and to invest time in their real interests. Charles Handy talked about the portfolio life in his book “The Age of Unreason”.

This is all well and good, but there is a drag effect caused by employers who still work off the old mantra of full-time devotion and loyalty. It’s hard for them to give up control. They are the ones who have not yet subscribed to the program and want to retain the initiative, which has largely been lost. Still living in the same paradigm are those employees, the traditional “wage slaves”, who want to be told what to do and don’t know how to operate as independent individuals. Heading to the new future, it’s too late for them

If the survival skill for the future is rugged independence and the ability to function competently as a sovereign individual, school curricula and university courses must be adapted to foster self-reliance and independence. Family values that for centuries have expected children to be obedient and not to argue with parents will need to be rethought. Demanding subservience to the elders and traditional leaders in rural communities is not preparing the next generation for their challenges.

There may be a further question. In every activity, from sports to corporate project management, team spirit is the guiding principle. It is what makes for outstanding performance on the field and what differentiates company management teams that can deliver excellent results. So how can we, in our increased individualism, be corralled into teamwork? Is it possible for people who have developed such a strong culture of doing things as individuals and satisfying personal choices still to adapt their efforts for a particular purpose to operate effectively within a team? DM


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