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Bringing Humanity into the WorkforceSubscribe to de-cooded
“I have read your paper with exhilaration… such a thing flung suddenly into half a million dull British heads… will do a great deal of good.”
Thomas Carlyle, commenting on John Ruskin’s 1860 work ‘Unto This Last’
In case you haven’t noticed, 8th February 2019 marks the bi-centenary of Ruskin’s birth. As Andrew Hill’s new book ‘Ruskinland’ points out, it is probably time to relook at Ruskin’s views on work and business.
Celebrations and commemorations will largely focus on his art criticism but, like so many Victorians, Ruskin was something of a polymath, writing on everything from ornithology and botany to political economy and the nature of work. In this latter area his thoughts seem to reflect the zeitgeist. We might not buy in to all his ideas but here are just a few to consider:
- Humanity at work. At a time of increasing automation and drive for efficiency (the 4th Industrial Revolution) we are as well to remember that work is a human endeavour. From that comes the recognition that creating the right conditions (both physical and cultural) for work to be carried out effectively will improve results.
- Purpose. Much has been made of the need to provide millennials (and I would argue others) with a purpose for their work. High levels of employment, living wages and social welfare allow wider choice of careers, but if organisations want discretionary effort, then a clear and compelling purpose is a good way of getting it.
- The ‘honest merchant’. Ruskin encouraged bosses to look more broadly than individual profit. He used the phrase (inscribed on his father’s tomb) as a vision for how businesses could benefit society and the workforce – not simply enrich those at the top.
- Philanthropy. With the news still fresh of David Harding’s recent £100m gift to Cambridge University, it would appear that Ruskin proved far-sighted in recognising the role that the wealthy (including businesses) should play in society. Or maybe we are just becoming the new Victorians?
For all this apparently benevolent talk, Ruskin did not regard himself as a socialist, writing “I was, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school” and he was certainly not against making a profit. He may not have said so, but I suspect he would recognise that encouraging humanity into the workforce drives performance and what Ruskin called a ‘sense of success’.
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