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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 09:45 GMT Hi-tech workplace no better than factories

Staff in technology jobs work in the white collar equivalent of a 19th century factory. suffering from isolation, job insecurity and long hours, research has found.

Much needs to be done to ease the intense pressure, inequality and exclusion in technology jobs, said the study by Sean O’Riain, Professor of Sociology at the University of California.

He looked at the characteristics of hi-tech workplaces, which are seen as a potential model for the future of work.

He found that the individualistic, macho culture of tech jobs was putting women off applying for jobs, despite an often critical shortage of skills.

Lonely and insecure

In his study, Professor O’Riain found a fiercely competitive world, which one software engineer described as a white collar factory.

“Although hi-tech workers are relatively free from supervision, peer pressure and deadlines drive them to extreme labour,” said he said.

Workers like software programmers are often cited as living out the dream of modern flexible working, untied by geographical office boundaries, able to work on their own initiative and offered stock options in their firms.

The reality is somewhat more nightmarish, Professor O’Riain found.

“They face the lonely insecurity of the individual entrepreneur in a marketplace and culture that stresses, with macho imagery from war and sports, that they are ultimately alone,” he said.

“For many this may be the shape of work in the 21st century.”

The downturn has added job insecurity to the list of stresses for the workers in the technology industry.

“When the economic crisis hit, they found themselves with few collective guarantees, they were cast to their individual fates,” said Professor O’Riain.

Corporate dominance

The image of the socially excluded geek working long and frustrating hours seems to be a hard one to shake off, despite efforts to change perceptions of the technology sector.

Sys admin Hi-tech workers have much-sought after skills According to Professor O’Riain, the hi-tech worker has become a product to be bought and sold, despite having much-sought after skills.

They are under constant pressure to update skills. And social relationships among the technical communities are defined by common technical interests rather than a common employer.

“If security of income and long-term learning were strengthened, technical communities could emerge as an important alternative model of economic organisation to increasing corporate dominance of the workplace,” concluded Professor O’Riain.

The research is published in the American Sociological Associations’ Contexts magazine.

University of California American Sociological Association Contexts Magazine

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