Examining the world of work

The Empty Raincoat
By Charles Handy
Arrow Books

Reviewer: J.A. O’Brien

In THE EMPTY RAINCOAT: MAKING SENSE OF THE FUTURE, Professor Charles Handy addresses the “confusion” that stems from the “pursuit of efficiency and economic growth” in the name of progress. And he asks how work can be “re-grounded in a natural sense of continuity, connection and purposeful direction”.

In a world where organisations are growing without growing the labour force, he sees hope in the growth of independent workers, he says, “Organisations will still be critically important in the world, but as organisers not employers”.

Discussing the many “paradoxes of our times” he points out that as “productivity” means more work from fewer people we are at the same time seeing the growth of the “do-it-yourself economy” and the self-employment sector.

“This is not a temporary paradox, governments and the unemployed please note. Society and individuals will have to get more used to the do-it-yourself economy as the new growth sector. Most of us are going to be in it, whether we like it or not. Better technology means more and more of us can run businesses or services by ourselves”.

Four of Professor Handy’s previous books have dealt with “organisations” and their impact on how people work and live. In a previous work, ‘The Age of Unreason’, he presented “an optimistic view” of the way work was being reshaped. ‘The Empty Raincoat’ retains this optimism but at the same time questions the functions of organisations more closely. And while he is hopeful for the individual in society, he is “more chary” as he says, in “offering general solutions to our individual predicaments”.

“We are not where we hoped to be”, he tells us. Perhaps that is why he followed this book with one that is titled ‘Beyond Certainty’.

For five years Professor Handy, though a layman, contributed to “Thought for the Day”, a religious reflection slot on BBC Radio Four. He has been described as “A renegade professor of business with theological affinities” and in ‘The Empty Raincoat’, he asks that we rediscover “a respect for something otherworldly, something beyond ourselves”.

Even so there is radical intent in his work. Handy offers a blueprint that can be adapted to the needs of companies and individual freelancers in many industries and many nations, and provides a philosophy to support the agents of change.

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