Published on 1 October 2018
Jean d'Alembert grant program

A specialist in the sociology of work, Daniel Mercure’s research focuses on changes in the workplace in the 21st century. At the inaugural lecture of the Université Paris-Saclay chairs, Daniel Mercure presented the major upheavals the world of work has been experiencing in the past 30 years, largely due to profound economic and technological changes. "What is the new world of work?" on 8 June 2018 at IEA in Paris, or the far-reaching transformation of workers’ perception of their work and the management of large companies.*

Today’s big businesses seek to recruit "aptitudes”. That is one of the consequences of the new mode of management, based on subjectivity: staff need to be self-reliant, effective and they need to embrace company values.  What impact might this have on the world of education, especially academia, which is meant to be training these companies’ future workers?

Let me first remind you that we are witnessing the opposite phenomenon in many sectors such as basic services, by which I mean a renewal of old Taylorist methods, supported by digitization. This is in striking contrast with companies operating in the key sectors driving our economies. For the latter, the search for skills such as ability and proficiency in analyzing and summarizing, in communicating and adapting to new and unexpected situations, and so on plays a key part, which doesn’t mean that formal qualifications and know-how are being trivialized. Rather, the search for these skills is seen as a vital addition, once the level of qualification has been reached, but it is a complement that will nonetheless take priority over more specialist qualifications. The skills mentioned are those that make the difference because they are integral to multi-skilling and proactivity, in other words transposable and adjustable knowledge and techniques.

These major shifts in recruitment profiles are based on the belief that constant change is a fact of life for companies and the ability to adapt and innovate on a daily basis is the primary source of success. Not in the future, but right now! The clear message is that the training programs we provide – especially in technical areas –need to: increase reflexivity and proactivity; develop personal transactions with coworkers at all levels; promote a culture of responsibility and self-reliance, coupled with a strong capacity for self-regulation; constantly rely on a strong spirit of innovation.

UPSaclay: You have also spoken of the impact of technological change over a very short space of time. The current development of artificial intelligence will probably play a key part in the worker/machine/service interaction. Is there not a case for interdisciplinary research to engage more with companies and managers?

Yes, absolutely, especially if you look at how technical and technological changes influence our work and therefore our lives. Why choose interdisciplinarity? Simply because we need to put an end to the idea that technique is a neutral variable, accountable only to itself and to science. Technical changes occur for social and economic reasons, often for political ones, especially as regards the military-industrial complex, and for scientific reasons of course. There is no such thing as neutral technical change, because technical change cannot think or apply itself. You need to properly understand its origin, and beyond the immediate goal, you need to understand the end purpose that governs its emergence, to make it easier to anticipate future advantages or possible hazards.  Several disciplines are required to achieve this. Interdisciplinarity helps us better recognize the unexpected results of technical changes as well as the more subtle and harder to identify technological changes. These are new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, the impact of which extends over the long term and changes the way we live together. In that regard, social sciences have a crucial role to play.

UPSaclay: Do the company executives whose data make up the corpus of your work listen to/consult you as a researcher, a sociologist?

Your question raises the issue of the status and relevance of knowledge derived from social sciences research. Unfortunately, I believe that people listen to us more than to lower-ranking workers, except when we point out that the latter really should be listened to. On the other hand, in North America at least, executives pay close attention to the likely social, political and governmental scenarios as regards the future of our market economies. The fact is that the euphoria of the Wall coming down has evaporated, a feeling of vulnerability has returned and senior executives and CEOs feel that the race is far from over. Also, and this has only happened in the past twenty years, the results of our surveys on cultural transformations have found a ready audience, especially those that deal with work and how people engage with it. Which is perfectly understandable, given that personal involvement at work and constant innovation have become key success factors for most companies. This does not just indicate remarkable cultural pragmatism, but also a strong feeling that the unexpected can happen any time – and drag us into turmoil. One thing is certain: these are anxious and therefore fascinating times.

Note: Find out more about how Daniel Mercure interprets the key challenges the world of work faces in the coming years by watching his inaugural lecture at Université Paris-Saclay. 

* The study focused on large (new economy) companies. The results for SMEs would likely have been different.