We need to look back before we can look forward; we need to look at the past of work before we can look at the future of it
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”Mark Twain
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”George Santayana
Futurists need to be good historians. In order to predict the future, it helps to understand the past, as it often repeats itself, or at least it rhymes, as Twain told us. As they often say, what is about to happen has probably happened in another place and time, only with different protagonists.
Technology is bringing many changes to our world, and we may think we have entered a time like no other in the past. This may be true, but there are plenty of things we can still learn about our future by looking at our past.
Take automation, for example. We may think our current concerns about robots taking our jobs are modern, but as we will see, people have been worrying about machines stealing their jobs at least since the 16th century, if not earlier. Does this mean this time can’t be different? No, of course it can be, and it probably is, but understanding what happened in the past will allow us to understand ourselves better and thus better prepare for the future.
From hunting to farming
Oxford Dictionary defines work as an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result”.
If we take this definition, we human beings have worked from the beginnings of time, even before we were Homo Sapiens. We have always had to hunt, collect berries and fruits, create tools, and make clothes.
Contrary to what is commonly believed today, prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribes didn’t live at the edge of starvation and didn’t have to work hard to satisfy their needs. They would at most work 15 hours per week and they dedicated most of their time to leisure and rest. They were in most cases better fed and healthier than their farmer descendants.
The sense of work as duty taking most of our time and worries started with farming societies in the Neolithic revolution. When people started having sedentary lives and having to sow the land to reap its fruits, they began to tend to this land every day or almost every day.
With the surplus of food and production, social status and hierarchies came into being, and specialized professions such as priests, accountants, lawyers, and doctors were created. Food production and goods stopped being communal, and money replaced bartering as the primary exchange mechanism.
With farming, the concept of work as we more or less understand it today was created.
From the Classical World to the Industrial Era
As the first agrarian cities evolved into empires like Egypt, Sumer, or Assyria, complex bureaucracies arose with increasingly specialized jobs. In Classic Greece and Rome, a big part of the work was carried out by slaves. Philosophers like Plato or Aristotle thought that slaves should carry out work so the elite, the free citizens, could dedicate their efforts to occupations of the mind such as philosophy, arts, and politics. This remit of the high mind is what gave them real humanity. In that sense, slaves, and therefore workers, were not fully human. Even professions like tradespeople and merchants weren’t fully respected.
With the arrival of the Middle Ages in Europe, slavery was replaced by servitude under the feudalist system. There existed freer people like artisans and craftsmen, who generally lived in towns and organized themselves in guilds, but most lived and worked in the fields for their feudal lords.
Politics and culture have changed a lot since the farming revolution that transformed our ancestors from hunter-gatherers into farmers, but the world of work didn’t change so much. Most people worked on the fields, from dawn to dusk, during millennia. The farming revolution made our societies richer as a whole, but most of the people living in those societies weren’t healthier or happier than their hunter forebears.
Yuval Harari writes it beautifully in his bestselling work Sapiens:
“These forfeited food surpluses fueled politics, wars, art, and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments, and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 percent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers- who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”Yuval Noah Harari
This was more or less the state of affairs until the Industrial Revolution, or revolutions, in the plural, as there were more than one.
The Industrial Revolutions
There have been three industrial revolutions, and we are now in the middle of the fourth one. The first one started in the 18th century in Great Britain and came about thanks to coal and steam power. Many processes and tasks that were hitherto made by hand were mechanized. Workers started getting together in factories, and many people migrated from farmlands to cities. Agriculture was no longer the main occupation of ninety percent of the working population, as more and more people started working in the industrial sector.
Like in all revolutions, there were significant disruptions and upheavals. Due to the mechanization of work, many people lost their old jobs. The term “Luddite” as someone opposed to technological progress originated during this time, as the followers of the mythical Ned Ludd broke power looms as a form of protest for them losing their jobs due to the unstoppable progress of machines.
Trade unions were created at this time, first in the UK and then in other parts of Europe and the US.
The second revolution happened at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and is associated with the combustion engine, electricity, the industrial use of gas and chemicals, and the assembly line as the leading industrial organisation method. Taylorism, the scientific management method, and paternalistic leadership originated during this time. Sadly, they are still in vogue in some companies.
The third industrial revolution happened in the second half of the 20th century and was characterized by the rise of the computer, electronics, and nuclear power. Lean Manufacturing, Just-In-Time, and other methodologies that originated in Japan were the must-haves in management. Some management gurus and enlightened companies realised that you could have more productive workers by treating them well and focusing on their development. Terms like employee engagement started to be used. Globalisation accelerated, and the world got smaller.
We are now in the 4th revolution. It started with the internet and mobile technologies, but more and more exponential technologies are coming to the fore and integrating with each other: artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, Internet of Things, 3D printing, genetic engineering, and a long etcetera. In terms of energy use, the central theme of the fourth industrial revolution is the search for sustainable sources of energy, with renewables taking the spotlight.
All this is changing the way we organize work, and it will have an impact on the Future of Work that we are in the process of imagining and building.
The Great Manure Crisis or the Parable of Horseshit
While we talk about the industrial revolutions, it is worthwhile to stop to relate a crisis that I find symbolic of the good and bad sides technological progress can bring. I am talking about the Great Manure Crisis, or what the journalist Elizabeth Kolter aptly called the Parable of Horseshit.
As explained by Susskind in his work A World without Work, the Great Manure Crisis disturbed the lives of the citizens of many American and European cities. Due to industrialization, cities in developed countries had grown enormously in the 19th century, and by the end of the century, the situation was unsustainable. Horses were still the primary means of transport, there were millions of them everywhere, and the amount of manure they produced was in the millions of tons per year.
This became a hygiene, salubrity, health, and esthetic crisis of great magnitude in cities the world over. City councils and governments didn’t know what to do with so much horseshit. Literally. Then technology came to the rescue, as it often happens.
The first internal combustion engine was created in the 1870s; in the 1880s, it was installed in the first automobile, and by the 1910s, Ford was producing the Model T en masse using its famous assembly lines. By 1912, there were more cars than horses in New York, and five years later, the last horse-drawn cart was decommissioned. Millions of horses were sacrificed as they could not compete with automobiles and trucks to transport goods and people.
The Parable of Horseshit is usually told as an optimistic tale, one of technological triumph. However, like the 1973 Economic Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief, others see this as a parable with more disturbing conclusions. A new technology, the combustion engine, had displaced in a matter of years an animal that for millennia had played a key role in our economic life. Leontief thought that what cars and tractors were to horses, computers, and robots would be to us, humans.
Are we to have the same fate as horses?
The threat of automation
Worries about the impact of automation on employment are not new. They have been around for centuries. An excellent example of it is when William Lee presented his project for a stocking frame knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in 1589, seeking her approval. Her response, however, wasn’t very positive:
“Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”Queen Elizabeth I
Lee got a reprimanded and failed to obtain the queen’s approval, but at least he survived the incident. Others didn’t. Anton Moller invented the ribbon loom at the end of the 16th century in Danzig, Germany. This machine required no specific skill to use. The city council was afraid that many workers would lose their jobs and become beggars, so they destroyed the device and executed Moller by strangling him. Talk about creating a positive environment for innovation and inventions.
Similar cases happened throughout Europe, including the episodes with the Luddites mentioned above. Machines weren’t welcomed warmly. Almost two centuries had to pass before machines became widespread in factories, first in the UK and then in the rest of Europe, thus starting the first industrial revolution.
Since then, technological anxiety hasn’t waned and has even increased. The worries about automation and machines stealing our jobs are as present today as they were in the past, if not more.
These fears have been unfounded in the past, as technology has displaced some jobs but has created many others. However, this time it is really different, some experts argue, as artificial intelligence and robots are qualitatively different from previous industrial machinery and are displacing white-collar and blue-collar jobs alike.
Will the automation-doomers be right this time, or will we continue creating new jobs? Who knows… Time only will tell.
The nature of work
Perhaps if machines did all our work, that wouldn’t be too bad. We could dedicate our time to do other things we may enjoy more and let robots do all our tedious tasks. What is wrong with enjoying life without having to work? Isn’t that what many people dream of doing if they win the lottery?
The problem is that today work has many social connotations. People find a purpose in their work, and it is also a meaningful way to signal social status. Often the first thing we ask when we first meet a person is what they do for a living, meaning what work they do. Many people love their jobs and are passionate about them. Some studies show that people without work sometimes become aimless and apathetic and have more mental health problems than people with a job.
This wasn’t always like this, though. The idea of work as having a positive moral attribute, as something desirable and fulfilling that provides a purpose to life, is relatively recent. It is linked to Protestantism in the 16th century.
The Bible mentions work as something men and women had to suffer:
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”Genesis 3:19
Thus God condemned human beings to work if they wanted to eat. The connotation here isn’t that work is something edifying, but an obligation God put on all Adam’s descendants for his and Eve’s downfall from His grace into the path of sin.
This was a standard view throughout history. We mentioned above how Plato, Aristotle, and all classic Romans and Greeks thought of work as better left to slaves, so free citizens could dedicate their time to occupations of the mind and the spirit.
Paradoxically, the arrival of artificial intelligence and robots may get us closer to our Greek and Roman ancestors than we think. Robots could become something akin to the slaves of the old and do all the menial tasks we don’t want to do and leave us to do creative and meaningful work we enjoy doing and are passionate about.
Before we get to this techno-utopian vision though, much has to change in our society and the existing technology. We’d have to go through many social upheavals and disruptions. Will we ever get there? Time only will tell, again.
From time-based to task-based work
One final theme I would like to delve deeper into is the nature of time and its relationship with work. As Marina Gorbis argues here, throughout history, human beings have organised their work and even their time around tasks, not the other way around. Clocks and watches weren’t an important part of our lives until recently. Their predominance only started with industrialisation, when it was necessary to gather all the factory workers at the same time and place and work on shifts of exact timing and duration.
Before that, people didn’t worry so much about time. This continues in many farming societies in the developing world, where they still measure their time on the tasks of the day: eg. the time it takes you to cook rice, the time it takes you to travel the distance on the boat to the fishing area, etc. The seasons of the year marked the farmer’s needs, who would organise their work based on those needs. This also gave people much more autonomy and flexibility.
Even medieval and pre-modern artisans and craftsmen had more autonomy and organised their work around tasks, not time. They usually worked at their own home and their own pace, depending on the number of orders and the pieces they had to work on. Many people believe working from home is an entirely new thing, but for most of history, our forebears have mainly worked from home, both as farmers and artisans.
All this changed with the arrival of the factory and the office and the necessity to have everybody at the same place simultaneously. As Gorbis explains, this is changing again with the arrival of internet platforms and the uberisation of the economy: uber drivers are also paid per task and organise their work around tasks.
I would argue that this return to task-based work is not only seen in the internet platforms but can also be appreciated in programmers and other knowledge-based workers in the post-covid world, where more flexible working arrangements are becoming prevalent. Many companies are now encouraging or allowing their employees to work from anywhere at any time.
History is full of circles and repetitions, and it seems the swing is going again in the opposite direction towards more autonomy and task-based work. If managed correctly, this is a positive development for both workers and organisations.
Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology
I would like to finish this post with a quote I love from the recently passed biologist Edward O. Wilson:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”Edward O. Wilson
Natural evolution is slow, so our basic biology hasn’t changed much, and we still have the same software we had 100,000 years ago when we were hunting wild animals and collecting berries in small tribes.
Social evolution isn’t as slow, so we have evolved our social norms and institutions as the centuries have ticked along. Some of our institutions are really medieval or pre-modern, but others have changed and evolved with time. I have tried to cover here how the world of work and attitudes towards it have changed throughout history. They have changed a lot.
The problem, and the crux of Wilson’s quote, is that technology is changing much faster than our biology and our cultural norms and institutions. It is changing too fast, and we cannot adapt fast enough.
That’s why it is essential to understand our history and our past to adapt faster and build the future we want to build. History tends to repeat itself, or at least rhyme, so if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we need to understand well what happened.
Even if technology is moving faster than ever and we are in the exponential age, history can teach us important lessons and help us prepare for an uncertain future. Therefore, it is necessary to look back before we look forward. We need to understand the past of work to build a better and more humane Future of Work.