The Empty Raincoat - Charles Handy
The Empty Raincoat100This book is not new having been written nearly fifteen years ago. However the recent events in the financial markets reveal that its message is remarkably timely.

Handy begins by discussing how economic progress has been won at a high cost. The claimed increase in freedom and choice have meant less equality and more misery if not for the wealthy few, for the rest of society. One of many paradoxes that Handy explores. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on how paying for jobs to be done, often destroys the jobs. His argument being that many worthwhile and valuable jobs simply become uneconomical once they are paid for, and thus disappear. It’s certainly my belief that the willingness of someone to pay for something is a very poor measure of whether something is worth doing. Think of the care you lavish on your children or time spent on hobbies.

The title comes from his plea that people should not be reduced to being empty raincoats.

“We were not destined to be empty raincoats, nameless numbers on a payroll, role occupants, the raw material of economics or sociology, statistics in some government report",

"If that is to be its price, then economic progress is an empty promise." Handy believes that it is every individual’s challenge to fill their empty raincoat. to make meaning in their life.

Handy argues that life is full of paradox and things simply can’t be predicted or understood. The challenge of life is to manage paradox, not to accumulate possessions.

He argues that wealth should not be measured in property and land, but in terms of knowledge.

"The means of production" in the future will be owned by the workers because it will be based on their intelligence and know how - a difficult thing to gauge in financial terms alone. Handy makes the analogy that where in the past an organisation was like a castle, it will become more like a condominium: "an association of temporary residents gathered together for their mutual convenience".

It seems to me that the messages of this book provide a reminder that the world is rapidly changing and that our understanding of change must also change.

"Like dogs, if we are well fed we are content. However, contentment and complacency have no place in a world where inequality and despair are rife. Success and vision can no longer be about our individual "empty raincoat" struggle for profit and material gain. If we do not help each other then we most certainly cannot help ourselves.”

Charles Handy has worked as an oil executive, an economist and a professor.

Steve Unwin
September 2008