Pro-Business, Gen-X Politician Lays Out New 21st Century Vision of Work and Life

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British Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, the 39 year old top contender to replace Tony Blair in the UK’s upcoming elections, caused a stir this week. In a controversial speech at the Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006 Conference in England, he laid out “work/life” as a key focus of his party’s political agenda. (Full transcript of the speech).

His speech was remarkable for the mere fact that it happened. But also because it was delivered by the leader of the country’s pro-business party. When the right-of-center candidate says “Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of out times,” it’s clear that governmental leaders are beginning to see the need for new models for managing work and the rest of life. Cameron believes that for individuals and nations to thrive in the 21st Century, “Our goal is clear: to move beyond a belief in the Protestant work ethic alone to a modern vision of ethical work.”

Is it any accident that this new vision is presented by the first Gen-X party leader England’s ever had? I don’t think so. His vision reflects a sensibility I see from many young employees: I will work hard, but I expect the flexibility to have a life outside of work as well. And, they don’t necessarily expect their employer to tell them what they particular flexibility will look like, but they want the freedom to pursue it.

David Cameron has affirmed that the dialogue about a new approach to work and the rest of our lives must takes place on all levels—political, corporate and individual. My hope is that his vision doesn’t only influence the dialogue in England, but that it ultimately jumps the pond and enhances the cultural conversation in America as well. Here’s a synopsis of what he said:

Core concepts of this new “modern vision of ethical work”:

“General Well-Being”
Cameron introduces a concept called “General Well-Being,” which he contrasted to GDP (Gross Domestic Product): “Wealth is about so much more than pounds, or euros, or dollars can ever measure. It’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB—general well-being.”

Redefining Success—Away from Wealth toward Connectedness
He encourages people to redefine success away from simply amassing wealth to what truly makes people happy, which is belonging: “But we should also acknowledge a vital truth that the pursuit of wealth is no longer—if it ever was—enough to meet people’s deepest hopes and aspirations….What makes us happy, above all, is a sense of belonging—strong relationships with friends, family and the immediate world around us…”

Challenges driving the need for this new vision:

Tension between Change and Belonging
Change will be a constant forever, and there are many attractive aspects of change: power of choice, mobility, and excitement. But there’s also a deep satisfaction that comes from committing and belonging. The two are often at odds and, “we all wrestle with the conflict,” while the benefits of change have their place, there is also a need for stability. He believes “much of your real job contract could not really be written down. It has increasingly become a relationship based on trust.”

Aging and Feminization of the Workforce
An “increase in the number of over-50’s in employment” will be the biggest change over the next 25 years. Therefore, the country’s pension and job training programs must adjust to reflect this reality. For mothers, the debate needs to move beyond whether or not they should or should not work, because, Cameron points out, “The reality today is that most mothers don’t have a choice about whether or not they have to work in order to help pay the mortgage and maintain the lifestyle they want for their family.”

It’s a Knowledge Economy
Developed economies will be competing more and more in the “high-skill, high-value knowledge sector. But knowledge workers have very different expectations of what an employer should provide…Employers (will be expected) to provide opportunities that balance work with the personal relationships and personal values that actually make us happy.”

How Cameron plans to achieve this new vision:

Leadership to Promote Successful Corporate Models of Flexible Work Arrangements
While he doesn’t believe that government can dictate what work should look like within companies, because that would limit an organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing realities, Cameron does believe flexibility is the answer. He advocates for the strategic use of flexibility in organizations as a way to achieve “general well-being.” He cited specific examples from innovative British companies such as British Telecom, and Lloyds TSB. :

“…That the government should regulate the specific details of work/life is ineffective. It produces unintended consequences that can end up damaging our competitiveness. And regulation ends up treating all companies the same, whereas, different businesses of different sizes, in different sectors will have significantly different circumstances. They should be encouraged to freely develop their own responses, tailored to their particular situation, rather than having specific measures imposed upon them…Time and again, employers told me that the government should not regulate flexibility and that if it had to, it should keep it simple…As one employer put it, the right way to do it is ‘informally, flexibly, and locally.” (Did anyone say Work+Life Fit Process? Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

Public Sector To Set the Standard for Flexibility
Cameron’s administration will model flexibility: “In some areas, Government can try to set the standard for others to follow by becoming a role model.”

Put Issue on the Public Agenda
Cameron plans to use power of the office to “put these issues on the agenda, and to bring about a change in national culture…talk up good practice and draw attention to bad practice…I’ve already annoyed a number of companies by pointing out failures of corporate responsibility…”

Government Regulations Will Support Progressive Employment Practices and Not Undermine Them
He acknowledges that new employment practices require a new approach to employment related regulations. He cited the recent decision to consider “the personal use of a company computer…as a ‘taxable benefit,’” as not reflecting how people really work and live. How do you monitor and separate work related activities from personal activities on the computer supplied by your job?

I look forward to seeing whether or not Cameron’s vision becomes reality assuming he is elected Prime Minister, and what it could mean for people in the UK, the EU, the US, and hopefully the global economy at large. At minimum, he’s introduced an important subject into the national debate. All change has to start somewhere…..

Join me on Tuesday, June 6th for the next Work+Life ‘Fit” Blog!