It’s all change in the world of work

It’s all change in the world of work
The World of Books
By the books editor

In recent months people have been forced for reasons of social solidarity to work from home, rather than make what was for many a two-hour drive to work and another two hours home. But this working from home, feared at first, has worked out well.

Working from home may emerge as the new norm, a norm that many had long predicted, the advent of the dispersed office, but which companies and managers (all those eager folk with MBAs) never allowed to emerge.

Thinking back to the early 1960s, with its hopes of change and prosperity, of change in society and even in the Church (remember the enthusiasm so many had for Pope John XXIII and Mater and Magister?), it was an era, at least for some, of hippies living in tepees and Native American lodges. The thought then was that a simpler way of life would provide the solution to climate change, to famine, to a divided society of haves and have-nots.

From those heady days post-1968 – for some Catholics in America the days of Ramparts Magazine and the direct application of Gospel values in daily life, much to the horror of the suburbs then still enjoying ‘the American way of life’ – I have retained a battered paperback which evokes a different style of facing the ‘the world of work’.

The authors were all emphatic that it was important to find out about local laws and rules about business, such as food safety and so on”

It is called A Handbook of Home Businesses Ideas and Plans, edited by John Shuttleworth and others (Bantam Books, 1976), which was subtitled a ‘do-it yourself employment ideas that work!’; such at least was the claim. The creator and publisher of this handbook were associates of The Mother Earth News – a reminder of the happy enthusiasms so many of us back then had.

When this book appeared in 1976, the notions that coalesced into a philosophical movement were already centuries old. They may seem to be ‘new’ in some places and for some people, but for others they have been a part of their outlook for ages.

So what sort of business notions was Mother Earth putting forward? These ideals were new to business men. There were no ambitions to dominate the streets with global technology. But this is the way artists, writers and poets had lived and worked since the dawn of time. It presented the ancient working habits of creative people, the ultimate in working from home, as the new way to go.

Now it’s back again. Sometimes the simplest lessons and ideas are the best. So we do not need to return to ‘normal’, we need to learn to live in the new reality. This will make the concept of ‘life-long learning’ come to pass.

One idea that appealed greatly to me was  a chapter by one Clarence Socwell with two supporting essays by others, on how he ran a paperback exchange shop. The idea certainly worked. I felt I could do that – buy the books at a quarter of the original cover price, and then sell them on at half of it, which is 50% profit for you and a half-price bargain for the customer.

But there were ideas for all kinds of other business: cement laying service; a window cleaning business; a photo-business based on the technique of the Victorian tintype; how to run a kitchen table sweet factory; or to sell fresh local produce door-to-door. These all sound very small scale, but from such small ideas great things rose.

The authors were all emphatic that it was important to find out about local laws and rules about business, such as food safety and so on, to keep careful books and to pay your taxes, especially VAT. How many businesses of all sizes fail in these respects, especially in the matter of VAT, which so many sole traders think they will be able to pay off later without putting anything aside to do so?

But this sentence appears on one of the first pages: “This book is dedicated to a revival of neighbourly self-reliance that soft-headed government bureaucrats seem so determined to kill.”

So take that as a warning. Plunge into the new world of working from home with care.