The Infinite Quest ; Sustenance and Shelter, Security - and a Life with Meaning

By Silha, Stephen | The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Infinite Quest ; Sustenance and Shelter, Security - and a Life with Meaning


Silha, Stephen, The Christian Science Monitor


Indentured servants to knowledge workers. Factory floors to virtual offices. Guilds to unions. Craftsmen to cyberworkers. The assembly line to the personal computer.

My, how the workplace has changed over the past 1,000 years - and especially over the past century.

The average artisan of 10 centuries back would today have to trade in his hammer for a 3-D digital scanner.

The 1950s "organization man," who sacrificed everything for the company, would be stunned to discover that the days of a "job for life" are long gone.

And today, seven women - a small yet significant number - are CEOs at the United States' 1,000 largest firms.

Yet the past millennium isn't all about change. The 12- to 14- hour workdays of the early 19th century are still par for the average salaried worker in today's just-in-time workplace.

And the desire for self-employment is a thread that runs through history.

The relatively recent past has been particularly rollicking where the world of work is concerned.

"It wasn't until a couple hundred years ago that the workplace we are familiar with started to emerge," says Sanford Jacoby, a professor of management at the Anderson business school at the University of California, Los Angeles. (This section's illustrations of "workers' top concerns" are based on his picks.)

If you go back 1,000 years, he says, the closest you could get to "conventional" workplaces were guilds - groups of artisans and merchants who pushed for the right to move from place to place and sell their skills to the highest bidder.

Sound familiar? The mentality is similar to that of today's cyberworkers, the king job-hoppers of the New Economy, Professor Jacoby contends.

Still, for most people back then, life was about servitude. Forget about a career. The No. 1 worker issue: making sure you had enough to eat.

****A.D. 1800

Workers' Top Concern

Fourteen-hour shifts with no fresh air. My co-workers, just kids, are exhausted. But I can't afford to miss a day.****

It took a while to get the breakdown of serfdom, the expansion of cities, and the rise of capitalism as we know it. A long while. Try 500-plus years.

Fast forward to 1800 (give or take a few decades). At last, mills and then factories start to dot the landscape. Many people leave farming for new ways of working - and suddenly a working class is born.

Factory work of the era proves to be grueling - 12- to 14-hour days six days a week, Jacoby says, and discipline is strict, including corporal punishment for the many children laboring in mines and mills. (Sadly, in parts of the world today, child labor and even slavery endures.)

Workers made plenty of attempts to unionize, but they were usually harshly punished.

"A lot of what we would consider labor-union activity was illegal at least for the first half of the 19th century," Jacoby says. "But if people weren't happy, they could go out and find another job - that was a big change. That's something workers hadn't been able to do for the previous 800 years."

Around the same time, the office worker emerges, that is, the male clerk who keeps the records at the rising number of banks and insurance companies.

By the turn of the 20th century, the landscape is dominated by large-scale manufacturers with upwards of 100 employees as well as ever-expanding offices.

One of the biggest trends affecting workers in modern times is the recasualization of the work contract - temp workers, contractors, and project-to-project workers.

This was the standard working relationship 100 years ago.

"Around 1900, the dominant type of employment relationship was called 'casual employment,' " says Daniel Cornfield, a labor psychologist and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. …

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