The death of deference

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

The so-called “death of deference” in western countries can be traced back immediately to the social revolution of the 1960s, though it probably has deeper roots in the two world wars.

The global conflicts hastened the crumbling of old class structures. In a couple of decades in the third quarter of the 20th century phrases such as “your elders and betters”, “knowing your place” and having “ideas above your station” passed from commonplaces to anachronisms.

Among those born in the 1990s and after, that erosion of automatic respect seems to have continued. People in their teens and 20s are more likely than ever to ask for the reasoning behind any instruction.

But the waning of deference to status has moved beyond generational shifts. Last month the latest data from an annual poll by communications group Edelmann of 33,000 people of all ages in 28 countries was released. It showed levels of confidence in business, the government and media had declined sharply in many countries and that the proportion of states in which a simple majority of respondents distrusted institutions had risen from half to two-thirds since the previous survey.

Edelmann talks of an “implosion of trust”, accelerated by the banking crisis, in which respected corporations were revealed to have feet of clay at best and, at worst, their fingers in the till.

This animus against those in control of the status quo is not restricted to people left behind by the effects of globalisation and finds expression in popular shifts against the settled political order such as the election of Donald Trump as US president or the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

OSH practitioners should be in a favourable position in business because they are tasked with persuading people to do things that are for their own good as well as their employer’s. In practice they still have to overcome resistance to authority among some and scepticism about their expertise among others. (In the Edelmann survey the proportion of respondents who rated technical experts as trusted sources of information – 60% – was matched by those who would rely for the same information on “someone like me”.)

As Clancy Docwra chief executive Seamus Keogh says in our February 2017 leader interview, the days of trying to manage by diktat are gone.

Trust and respect have to be earned in OSH management, as in any other field. Relying on the organisational hierarchy will not work, except perhaps in periods of high unemployment.

Leading by example, explaining management decisions and involving employees in OSH processes – whether it is devising a method statement or a lone working policy – have always been good practice. With deference dead, these may be the only ways to make safety and health messages stick.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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  • Thoughtful and well written

    Permalink Submitted by David gibson on 25 January 2017 - 10:18 pm

    Thoughtful and well written article on the rise of populism . The concept of alternate truth also has a big impact in the health arena sometimes without any evidence base

  • Currently undertaking an MSc

    Permalink Submitted by Curth on 26 January 2017 - 04:14 pm

    Currently undertaking an MSc in OSH. This article augments my studies immensely.


  • Thoughtful article, times

    Permalink Submitted by Keith Scott on 19 February 2017 - 12:07 pm

    Thoughtful article, times they are a changing! My Grandfather used to use 'know your place', 'ideas above your station' etc. along with they are only 'cannon fodder', which seems to have died out as well.

    I agree that OSH professionals should be in a good position for the brave new World of working in partnership and respect for a persons life or opinion, whatever their age or experience. However, there will be significant challenges ahead such as artificial intelligence and disruptive new technologies, which shall bring significant work changes in the next decade or two. we shall need to keep moving with the times, technologies and emotional intelligence of the working population.

    I believe the language and terms we use now will be just as out of date in just a decade from now as my Grandfathers sayings are now.


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