A historian is a prophet in reverse.
As we begin the 21st century, it is arguable whether there has ever been so much disagreement about the nature of work and how it should be organized, to say nothing of debate about a future when large sections of the population may have no paid work at all (e.g., Wilpert, 1997). The optimists, mainly in the USA but including Charles Handy (1995) in the UK, see work undergoing a revolution to which people will adapt, becoming multiskilled, resilient, and self-sufficient as they manage portfolio careers. The pessimists, mainly centred in Europe (e.g., Frese, 1997), but including Herriot and Pemberton (1995) in the UK, are not so sanguine. They perceive a workforce under increasing strain where two people in employment now do the work previously done by three, where the UK is generally agreed to have the longest working hours in Europe, feelings of job insecurity are rife, and organizational commitment is severely threatened. Meanwhile millions are in enforced idleness and poverty, and some commentators (e.g., Wilpert, 1997) predict increasing social unrest and societal breakdown.
What is really happening in the workplace and what are its consequences for individuals? The truth is that at this time no-one really knows. As Thompson and Warhurst (1998, p. 8) say, "The banal but simple truth is that there is no universal direction." For many millions in many sectors of the economy work goes on much as it has always done. Many people working in the retail industry, in maintenance, repair, and construction firms, and in the hotel and leisure industry, for instance, might scoff at the notion that a revolution in the nature of work is underway. But for millions of others, their working lives have been transformed in recent years. There is undoubtedly a growing consensus about trends in working life, but the complexities of what is actually happening on the ground are well illustrated in two recent