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Jan Lucassen on Major Shifts in the History of Work

Posted on 13th July 2021 by Mark Skinner

A definitive study of how work has shaped humanity (and vice versa), Jan Lucassen's The Story of Work is a richly informative and always entertaining read. In this exclusive piece, Lucassen discusses the five major stages of work in human history and the impact they have had on development and growth.    

What is work? The answer to this question may seem simple. We all work, whether as independent professionals, producers, or within our homes. But our experiences differ hugely between generations and across continents. And in the past year, many of us have faced enormous changes to our working lives. 

As things continue to change rapidly around us, it is more important than ever that we understand the role of work in our societies. Only then can we defend, or even improve our positions. 

In my new book, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, I attempt to give a truly global picture of the activities we have employed to make the world around us serve our needs.

When we think of work, we tend to picture the male factory hand, the plantation slave, the peasant, the entrepreneur. In my book I try to look further, to include the work done by women and children throughout history – both in the home and in varied workplaces across the world. 

It all starts with hunter-gathering, which developed a status quo that held for the first 98% of the history of our species. There are many aspects of hunter-gathering that connect us with our primate predecessors. Looking at our hunter-gatherer ancestors reveals the cooperative links between them, a vital principle of reciprocity that still prevails in modern society. You might not realise it, but we still act along the principles of hunter-gatherers in our households today. 

How we got from hunter-gathering to robotization and AI in the workplace is a fascinating story. To break this rich tale down, I identify five major shifts in history, all of which can help us properly understand how we got where we are today. 

The first big change came with the invention of agriculture. This occurred independently across the world more than 10,000 years ago and – after many trials and errors - enabled us to create surplus food. With enough food being produced for everyone, people no longer had to rely on subsistence farming. 

Once we had a consistent supply of food, new questions arose: how would we share these surplus fruits of our labour? And how should we divide our tasks? In the book, I explore how humanity organized its work outside the household differently across the globe, from China and India to the Americas and Europe, and how societies addressed the issues of dividing labour according to gender, and slavery. Whether it is peasant farmers in the first agrarian societies or today’s self-employed web designers working in the gig economy, the history of work reveals recurring patterns in our behaviour.

The next watershed moment came around 500 BCE, when money was invented in China, India and the Greek world. This created a labour force that worked en masse for employers in return for money—in nail bars or carpet workshops, urban marijuana farms or brothels, investment banks or as paid soldiers. But there were still those who were forced to work for nothing as slaves. It is easy to forget that this was not a universal triumph of the market; money vanished in Europe and India for half a millennium, only to emerge again after 1000 CE. 

We then move onto the explosion of maritime power in Europe. The new ships and seafaring technology introduced in the seventeenth century enabled humans around the globe to meet and cross paths far more freely than ever before. And, at the same time, women were working harder than ever in home industries. The West was now diverging from the rest of the world, with more and more power, influence, and funds. But this came at a price: the conquest and exploitation of the Americas and the ravages of the Atlantic slave plantations. By 1800, industrial revolutions had intensified work and profits and brought unprecedented prosperity to the West. 

The last and most recent shift is the slow reversal of the West and East divergence. Over the last two hundred years, unfree labour has gradually been abolished (although mass prison work and modern slavery still exists to this day), and wage labour has been taken up instead of independent production and household work. As a result, new forms of welfare state and collective actions have arisen – from trade unions and labour movements to revolutionary change in the Soviet Union and China. 

In my book, I have attempted to draw together experiences of work from across the globe, and to get away from the artificial distinctions that we rely on when it comes to work, like housework versus industrial work, and ‘men’s work’ as opposed to ‘women’s work’. We work not only because we must, but also because it is a way in which we can express our identity and realize ourselves; we do so by working together with others; we strive at a fair compensation for our efforts. I hope I have succeeded in suggesting something of the fascinating story of human work – and that readers will be able to recognize their own experiences in the tales of our busy ancestors. 

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