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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

September 2004 - Lessons from history point to the de-structured career

The way people work has defined societies for thousands of years from the hunter-gatherer of the Stone Age to the salaried professional in the modern office. In between there have been watersheds in the organisation and distribution of work influenced by social, economic and technological changes.

The interrelation of these factors at different stages of human evolution tends to vary depending on the period. But all have created a significant transformation of social attitudes and relationships that throw light on the dynamics of today's labour markets.

The social impact of work, for example, was visible in the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago when the planting of grain created surpluses that enabled the development of larger settled communities governed by laws and tiers of administration. It also created the need for more specialised skills.

This specialisation under management was noticeable in the tomb building of dynastic Egypt where skilled workmen were organised in competing teams. But if physical work achieved some dignity in this period it lost its attraction in the slave societies of Greece and Rome. The Greeks were so disinterested in work they had no word for it except ponos, meaning painful, used to describe some unpleasant task.

Attitudes to work have evolved with language. "The job" itself was nothing more than a parcel of work up to the 18th century when it came to define regular paid occupation.

For most people, work in the medieval era was characterised by the kind of flexibility that is emerging in the modern labour market. Even guild members, who could rely on regular work, were expected to put aside their crafts to help bring in the harvest.

By the time the factory system began to take root in the UK during the late 18th century most of the modern features of work - collective agreements, the establishment of pay rates and taxation - had become central to working life. Alongside these developments, specialisation and lines of demarcation were becoming common. Adam Smith observed the efficiencies to be achieved by a division of labour when he described the stages of pin manufacturing in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1746.

The economies of mass production were confirmed on a spectacular scale in the UK by Richard Arkwright, the first of the wool and cotton textile magnates whose Cromford Mill in Derbyshire was one of the earliest factories to employ people systematically in large-scale manufacturing using a central power source.

Far from liberating working people, however, the technologies that emerged with the factory system led to repressive working conditions and exploitative practices, including child labour and shift systems that ignored the saints days that had defined leisure time in medieval society.

While a few 19th century entrepreneurs, such as Robert Owen, pioneered enlightened social policies governing the welfare of workers, the overriding concern of factory owners was to increase production. In the 1820s when Baron Charles Dupin, the French founder of mechanics' institutes - schools for workers - described the worker as the "first rank" in the machinery of production, he was creating a field of work study that would influence organisational development throughout the late 19th and 20th century.

Experiments in the 1880s by the work study enthusiast, Frederick W Taylor, coupled with the moving assembly lines created for the Model T Ford, revolutionised production rates and weakened many of the artisan skills that had helped to maintain an element of employee independence throughout the first period of industrialisation.

To improve their pay and conditions many workers sought to organise collective representation in trade unions and by the end of the 19th century the gulf between the aspirations of workers and owners was already setting the pattern for future workplace relations.

This pattern was consolidated after the first world war when the refinement of divisional-style management, selective recruitment and careers structures in the 1920s led to large-scale employee communities run by teams of office-based administrators. The expansion of the white-collar executive class in the inter-war years was a phenomenon identified by William H Whyte's best selling book, The Organization Man, published in 1956, the first year white collar workers outnumbered blue collar workers in the US.

The career had overtaken the job as the social context for work. But the job-for-life career structure was to be shaken in 1990 when Michael Hammer outlined his ideas for "re-engineering work" in a Harvard Business Review article that would be developed first into a book then as a world-wide movement designed to streamline corporate administration.

Manufacturing processes were transformed as flatter hierarchies - often accompanied by large-scale white collar redundancies - and were married to self-managed teams, Japanese working practices and creeping automation. Mass employment began to decline and with it trade union membership. But, overall, labour markets were stabilised by a rise in service occupations and developments in information technology.

Many new jobs relied on technologies that allowed work to be carried out anywhere, at any time. But in the new millennium most people continued to be employed in conventional career structures. The need to service substantial debts, typically in house mortgages, is sustaining a desire among most people for regular salaried employment.

But recently, concepts such as the gap year for students are spreading. The increasing presence of women in full-time work has led to demands for job-sharing and part-time work under the heading of "work-life balance" when the labour policies of most European governments focus on full-time working.

Today the labour markets of western industrialised societies are confronting further change in social structures. These include smaller populations, secondary sources of income, such as inheritances and investment income among the middle classes, and truncated white-collar careers where progressively higher salaries of older managers and fast-track promotion opportunities are shortening career paths.

Yet as the economies of offshoring and outsourcing erode employment, others are emerging, suggesting dynamism and diversity in thinking. In future, employees may need the experiences of the hunter-gatherer and the independence of the medieval artisan, supported by a network of customers and contacts. As work becomes more project-focused and tailored to the individual we enter the age of the de-structured career.

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