3 Book Reviews

Book reviews

I (very) occasionally dabble in non-fiction. It’s like vegetables, you should really have at least some once in a while. Here are three books I’ve read recently that I would recommend.


The Second Curve – Charles Handy

I learnt long ago that an hours lunch break is not long enough to do anything substantial, like going to the gym, meeting a friend, disco dancing, or seeing Charles Handy promote his new book the Second Curve at the RSA. I was working a few streets away just off Trafalgar Square at the time which helped.

As an author in his 80s Handy’s thoughts are aimed at the future but informed by a long, prosperous and varied career (his career being an example of the second curve, constantly reinventing himself). It’s a great book (and I’m not afraid to give an octogenarian a bad review). The premise of the second curve is that you have to invest in the next thing whilst the current going is still good. The book reads like a conversation with an elder statesman. It’s a collection of short essays (3000 words each, one per commute) each on a different theme (workplace, management, capitalism, and democracy amongst others).

Handy talks about how shareholders were never traditionally seen as the owners of a business but providers of capital that were paid a risk premium. The customer used to be central. After a few influential articles in the 70s the idea stuck. The House of Commons used to be a chapel and as such politicians face off each other. If we designed our parliament from scratch, we might choose an oval shape like Holyrood to encourage a more collaborative politics. Our state pension operates like a Ponzi scheme, perhaps we should look to Singapore’s fully funded central fund model.

The book covers a lot of ground but it is not too prescriptive, rather it offers suggestions to get us thinking about how we can reinvent society.


Inside the Nudge Unit – David Halpern

Alain De Botton calls it ‘a stunning book, thrilling, eye opening, and deeply informative’. I daresay Alain has over egged it a bit here. The Nudge Unit’s success has made behavioural insights somewhat ubiquitous. This is a book about an idea that has come of age (where Botton’s review speaks more to a debut). The Nudge Unit have had ample time to ‘test, learn, and adapt’ (a motto that we have adopted at the Careers & Enterprise Company) which means Halpern has a wealth of anecdote to draw on. Perhaps the most well-known success is that of auto-enrolment in pensions, changing from an opt in to an opt out system as we are much more likely to adopt the default option.

One example of the BIT Team’s work that isn’t in the book is the work they have done with us at the Careers & Enterprise Company looking at how young people make decisions about their careers. Years ago when working in a university I helped prepare stats for key information sheets (KIS) that would be hosted on unistats.gov. The model relied on the teenage Homo Economicus weighing up all the available data in their rational mind and deciding on a course that maximised their utility. The moments of choice research found that students are awash with data which far from making the choice easier actually makes it harder as they experience choice overload.

In addition to a greater appreciation for human behaviour, the book makes the case for a more empirical approach to policy. The BIT team’s biggest contribution to policy may be their use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) which have been used extensively in medicine but only recently made it over to education and health. Government’s want to know first what works before committing public resource. Many companies have been making tweaks to see how they can sell more for years now (A B testing on sites like amazon), and may occasionally find a nudge that increases sales by a small margin. The BIT team realise much bigger gains, in part because the approach is new to policy.

Recently, On a train with BIT Team colleagues I was caught reading the book. First they laughed at me before one (a new recruit) admitted to reading it and another grabbed it to check a few things for a presentation they were giving.


The Future of the Professions – Richard Susskind and David Susskind

When John McDonnel became shadow chancellor he organised a set of economics lectures with some distinguished speakers. I attended one on technology and the future of work at the Houses of Parliament (people are very good to film and podcast these things) where Daniel Susskind talked about his new book, co-written with his father Richard on the future of the professions.

I like this book because I feel we are so busy talking about automation, hour glass labour markets, and the precariat that we seldom stop to think about the professions (doctors, teachers, lawyers, and interestingly in this book – the clergy). The book talks about the future but the changes happening right now are just as interesting. The authors (probably more Richard Susskind as Daniel would have been very young in 1996) make the point that 20 years ago they said lawyers would be emailing their clients to which they were told they had no idea about client confidentially. Today millions of people consult the web to diagnose an illness, and eBay’s online arbitration service handles more incidents than the courts. Last week at a conference I talked to someone who had run a MOOC; I can’t remember how many people started the course but 89,000 finished (more than double the number of students at the UKs biggest university). Shifts like this are slowly breaking the monopoly of professionals as guardians of specialist knowledge.

The book is well researched and I frequently raided the footnotes. The spread of professions cited is diverse enough that it has wide appeal. Perhaps the best endorsement of this book is that I long since forced it on someone else and don’t have the copy to hand for reference in this review.


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