A brief history of the nature of work

by Carlos Alvarez | Aug 13, 2018 | Thought Pieces


Traditionally, technological progress is incremental and gradual considering improvements and adaptations of existing technology. However, occasionally in modern human history, technological advance has been disruptive and revolutionary in transforming societal and economic structures. In the context of work, three ‘radical breakthroughs’ disrupted the economic, social and institutional conditions that adopted them. These previous industrial revolutions fundamentally changed labour markets and the nature of work around the world, including women participation in the workforce. Given their significant impact on economic development, the examination of past revolutions offers broad insights into what a future revolution may bring.
However, these changes didn’t only bring positive effects to society. During this period, a higher division of labour and status was seen in which the wealthy gained control of the surplus resources and power became more centralized. The wealthy were able to afford a better quality of life and differences in social classes were divided by ethnicity and gender. In Great Britain, the Enclosure Acts were passed that allowed wealthy lords to buy public fields and push out small-scale farmers, causing a migration of men looking for wage labour in the cities. These men would come to provide the labour force for new industries during the reorganization of economies and societies.

The first industrial revolution (mid 1700s –mid 1800s)

The age of mechanical production
This period between the mid-18th century and the end of the 19th century is seen as the beginning of modern economy evolution as it experienced rapid improvements in agricultural technology production. During this age, inventions like the plow and horse-drawn seed press allowed people to perform tasks more efficiently. Farmers learned more practical farming practices, such as rotating crops and using fertilizers, which led to better and more substantial surpluses of food. Towns and cities grew, with some of them becoming trade centres. Technological improvement also freed time from people’s agendas, opening space for other passions such as music and philosophy.
Parallel with increasing the productivity and efficiency in the agricultural sector, the introduction of mechanization brought about a rapid and significant change in the economy. This process saw a replacement of agriculture with industry as the foundation of the economic structure. Inventions and developments that played a significant role were the steam engine, forging of new materials, mass extraction of coal and railroads.

As a consequence, work that was previously done by people was now being performed in cities with large factories and on equipment capable of producing a large number of products quickly. The population was negatively impacted including overcrowding in cities due to rapid urbanization, skilled workers were replaced with low-skilled workers from the agricultural sector. These low-skilled workers were underpaid and overworked. The inequality gap that was established in the agricultural age worsened as the rich continued to stockpile resources while the working poor faced poverty.

The second industrial revolution (mid 1800s – early 1900s)

The age of mechanical production

Almost a century after the start of the first industrial revolution, at the mid to end of the 19th century, the second industrial revolution started. New technological advancements introduced new sources of energy: electricity, gas and oil. The combustion engine set out to use these resources to their full potential and the steel industry began to grow. Chemistry also gave us synthetic fabric, dyes and new fertilizers made easy to use. However, advancements weren’t limited to the laboratory.
Scientific principles were brought into the factories and this way the assembly line was born; this effectively powered mass production.

Moreover, by the early 20th century, Henry Ford’s company was mass producing the ground-breaking FordModel T, a car with a petrol engine built on an assembly line in his factories.

People tend to go where the jobs were offered and in the early 1900s massive amount of workers left their rural homes and moved to urban areas, joining factory jobs. By 1900, 40% of the US population lived in cities, this compared to 6% in 1800. Alongside this, rapid urbanization new methods of communication revolutionized people’s lives, being the radio and television two emblematic symbols of this period.


The third industrial revolution (mid 1900s – 2000)

The digital revolution

Around the 1950s, a third industrial revolution started when a new type of energy whose potential surpassed its predecessors emerged; the nuclear energy. This revolution also witnessed the rise of electronics, telecommunications, computers and the Internet. So, the move from analog electronic and mechanical devices to pervasive digital technology dramatically disrupted industries. Electronics and information technology began to automate production and take supply chains global.
The business sector saw a transformation in the 1960s when large corporations would rent and buy entire floors devoted to housing large computational systems capable of performing basic analytics. Around the 1980s the desktop was introduced and permitted faster processing, lower overhead costs and with the spread of enterprise software, it increased the at-home and at-work productivity. As a result, workers became digital where the consumer climate affected both culture and societal norms.

In a bigger perspective, the wave of digitalization has had profound effects on productivity, growth and employment. However, research has found that digitalization has contributed to slower rates of employment rather than the opposite which is most pronounced in post-war and post-recession environments. Since the 1980s, both low- and high-skill job sectors saw an increase in employment rates while middle-skill jobs have fallen drastically. As automation has reduced the amount of human-operated production, the number of maintenance jobs that involve in-person services have increased because they are required to automation – for now. This may also explain the rise in high-skilled jobs that involve human creativity and problem-solving.

And so we have arrived at the Fourth Industrial Revolution.