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