Arts Entertainments

Review of ‘The Age of Unreason’ by Charles Handy (1989)

The key words that catch your eye in ‘The Age of Unreason’ are ‘change’, ‘discontinuity’, ‘backward thinking’ and ‘uncertainty’. The changes of the last twenty years have been immense and have challenged our comfortable perceptions of the world. Handy identifies how organizations and individuals must learn to cope with changing work patterns. The book flows from argument to analysis and from theory to practical examples of how the future might work, as Handy sees it. This book could have been written today and still have validity and relevance as a roadmap for an uncertain future.

‘The Age of Unreason’ could be open to criticism as a utopian vision of how dynamic and adaptable members of society cope with the discontinuous change that quantum leaps in technology have imposed on us. Those who have embraced lifelong learning and surely most MBAs will fall into this category, they are smart and can leverage their own resources to succeed in disruptive times. It is not so clear how the underprivileged will prosper or even survive, although the author cautions against creating a divisive society.

When Handy originally described his vision of entrepreneurial and flexible workers, the layman had not heard of the internet, mobile phones weighed around a kilo, and the world of work would still have been recognizable to our grandparents. Now, with the ubiquitous Web, fast telecommunications links, and a rapidly changing attitude toward work practices, his vision is a reality. Many now have what Handy calls portfolio careers. I write this from home, where broadband communication has allowed me to manage my bank account, advertise my consulting services, and see the sad remnants of my stock portfolio with little effort. His vision of the ‘clover organization’, consisting of a core of experts staffed by outside organizations and part-time contractors, has been realized and made possible by technology.

In Handy’s view, few of us who now work will end our careers with a gold watch after forty years of uninterrupted service with a single employer. The three parts of the book are titled; Change, work, live. It is through the combination of these that we reach a satisfying balance in which portfolio career is complemented by portfolio compensation, which is measured in both personal fulfillment and financial reward. Handy’s innovative approach or backward thinking, as he calls it, also extends to education. His views are radical. Schools would have individual contracts with students to provide a basic service. Then there would be an area of ​​discretion or specialization, where the student could choose from a variety of options.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and therefore reviewing this work thirteen years after its publication has afforded an insider’s view. One thing is impressive and must be emphasized. Handy’s journey is one that he has undertaken himself. After you have finished ‘The Age of Unreason’, reflect on the lessons learned, then read ‘The Elephant and the Flea’ (2001), where you describe how independent living has worked for you. This is a more thoughtful and philosophical work than ‘The Age of Unreason’, but the two can be seen as milestones in a rich and varied life. Handy manages to paint an attractive picture of the future in which many could work from home using our talents to their full and diverse potential. Read ‘The Age of Unreason’ and imagine how Handy’s vision could work for you. Have any of us ever dreamed of waking up in the morning and traveling 10 meters down the hall to our home office? Now where did I put my pinstriped gown?