A Brief History Of Work

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Why we work the way we do.


  • 1. A Brief History of Work
  • 2. Historically speaking, the cultural norm placing a positive moral value on doing a good job is a relatively recent development in our society.
  • 3. Working hard was not the norm for Hebrew, classical, or medieval cultures. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that physical labor became culturally acceptable for all persons, even the wealthy.
  • 4. Traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs state that sometime after the dawn of creation, man was placed in the Garden of Eden "to work it and take care of it." (Genesis 2:15)
  • 5. The Greeks, like the Hebrews, regarded work as a curse. The Greek word for work was ponos, taken from the Latin poena, which meant sorrow.
  • 6. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle made it clear that the purpose for which the majority of men labored was "in order that the minority, the lite, might engage in pure exercises of the mindart, philosophy, and politics."
  • 7. The Greeks believed that a person's prudence, morality, and wisdom was directly proportional to the amount of leisure time that person had.
  • 8. For the Romans, work was to be done by slaves, and only two occupations were suitable for a free managriculture and big business .
  • 9. With the Reformation, a period of religious and political upheaval in Western Europe during the sixteenth century, came a new perspective on work.
  • 10. Max Weber, the German economic sociologist, coined the term the "Protestant ethic." The key elements were diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of the work domain.
  • 11. From a Marxist view, what actually occurred was the development of a religious base of support for a new industrial system which required workers who would accept long hours and poor working conditions .
  • 12. As time passed, attitudes and beliefs which supported hard work became secularized, and were woven into the norms of Western culture, as emphasized in the popular writings of Benjamin Franklin.
  • 13. The early adventurers who first found America were searching, not for a place to work and build a new land, but for a new Eden where abundance and riches would allow them to follow Aristotle's instruction that leisure was the only life fitting for a free man.
  • 14. Visitors to the northern states were perplexed by the lack of dedication to a life of leisure.
  • 15. Work in pre-industrial America was not incessant. The work of agriculture was seasonal: hectic during planting and harvesting but more relaxed during the winter.
  • 16. One of the central themes of the work ethic was that an individual could be the master of his own fate through hard work.
  • 17. As late as 1850 most American manufacturing was still being done in homes and workshops.
  • 18. In the early 1820's, Lowell, Massachusetts witnessed the real beginning of the industrial age in America. By the end of the decade, nineteen textile mills were in operation in the city, and 5,000 workers were employed in the mills.
  • 19. In the factories, skill and craftsmanship were replaced by discipline and anonymity.
  • 20. The sense of control over one's destiny was missing in the new workplace, and the emptiness and lack of intellectual stimulation in work threatened the work ethic.
  • 21. By the end of World War II behaviorists argued that workers were adaptive. If the environment failed to provide a challenge, workers became lazy, but if appropriate opportunities were provided, workers would become creative and motivated.
  • 22. Efforts were made to make people feel important at work. Employee awards were used by management to enhance the job environment.
  • 23. In the late 1950's, factors such as salary, company policies, supervisory style, working conditions, and relations with fellow workers tended to impair worker performance if inadequately provided for, but did not particularly improve worker motivation when present.
  • 24. Just as the people of the mid-nineteenth century encountered tremendous cultural and social change with the dawn of the industrial age, the people of the late twentieth century experienced tremendous cultural and social shifts with the advent of the information age.
  • 25. As high-discretion, information age jobs provided opportunities for greater self-expression by workers, people began to find more self-fulfillment in their work.
  • 26. The knowledge workers, collectively, are the new capitalists. Knowledge has become the key resource, and the only scarce one. This means that knowledge workers collectively own the means of production.
  • 27. Knowledge workers need access to an organizationa collective that brings together an array of knowledge workers and applies their specialism to a common end-product.
  • 28. Knowledge workers see themselves as equal to those who retain their services, as professionals rather than employees. The knowledge society is a society of seniors and juniors rather than bosses and subordinates.
  • 29. The knowledge society is also the first human society where upward mobility is potentially unlimited.
  • 30. Created on June 18, 2009 by Steven Stark www.stevenstark.net Text excerpted from Historical Context of the Work Ethic by Roger B. Hill, Ph.D., 1996 and The Next Society: A Survey of the Near Future, Peter Drucker, 2001. Images were sourced at everystockphoto.com and sharesomecandy.com and are used with attribution rights.