The infinite quest

Sustenance and shelter, security - and a life with meaning.

Indentured servants to knowledge workers. Factory floors to virtual offices. Guilds to unions. Craftsmen to cyberworkers. The assembly line to the personal computer.

My, how the workplace has changed over the past 1,000 years - and especially over the past century.

The average artisan of 10 centuries back would today have to trade in his hammer for a 3-D digital scanner.

The 1950s "organization man," who sacrificed everything for the company, would be stunned to discover that the days of a "job for life" are long gone.

And today, seven women - a small yet significant number - are CEOs at the United States' 1,000 largest firms.

Yet the past millennium isn't all about change. The 12- to 14-hour workdays of the early 19th century are still par for the average salaried worker in today's just-in-time workplace.

And the desire for self-employment is a thread that runs through history.

The relatively recent past has been particularly rollicking where the world of work is concerned.

"It wasn't until a couple hundred years ago that the workplace we are familiar with started to emerge," says Sanford Jacoby, a professor of management at the Anderson business school at the University of California, Los Angeles. (This section's illustrations of "workers' top concerns" are based on his picks.)

If you go back 1,000 years, he says, the closest you could get to "conventional" workplaces were guilds - groups of artisans and merchants who pushed for the right to move from place to place and sell their skills to the highest bidder.

Sound familiar? The mentality is similar to that of today's cyberworkers, the king job-hoppers of the New Economy, Professor Jacoby contends.

Still, for most people back then, life was about servitude. Forget about a career. The No. 1 worker issue: making sure you had enough to eat.

****A.D. 1800

Workers' Top Concern

Fourteen-hour shifts with no fresh air. My co-workers, just kids, are exhausted. But I can't afford to miss a day.****

It took a while to get the breakdown of serfdom, the expansion of cities, and the rise of capitalism as we know it. A long while. Try 500-plus years.

Fast forward to 1800 (give or take a few decades). At last, mills and then factories start to dot the landscape. Many people leave farming for new ways of working - and suddenly a working class is born.

Factory work of the era proves to be grueling - 12- to 14-hour days six days a week, Jacoby says, and discipline is strict, including corporal punishment for the many children laboring in mines and mills. (Sadly, in parts of the world today, child labor and even slavery endures.)

Workers made plenty of attempts to unionize, but they were usually harshly punished.

"A lot of what we would consider labor-union activity was illegal at least for the first half of the 19th century," Jacoby says. "But if people weren't happy, they could go out and find another job - that was a big change. That's something workers hadn't been able to do for the previous 800 years."

Around the same time, the office worker emerges, that is, the male clerk who keeps the records at the rising number of banks and insurance companies.

By the turn of the 20th century, the landscape is dominated by large-scale manufacturers with upwards of 100 employees as well as ever-expanding offices.

One of the biggest trends affecting workers in modern times is the recasualization of the work contract - temp workers, contractors, and project-to-project workers.

This was the standard working relationship 100 years ago.

"Around 1900, the dominant type of employment relationship was called 'casual employment,' " says Daniel Cornfield, a labor psychologist and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Back then, he says, most workers worked project to project.

It wasn't until the end of World War II - and the rise of large corporations - that the idea of long-term careers for manual workers took hold. (More on that later.)

Outside of the workplace, new consumer habits began to surface in the late 19th century. The concept of savings and thrift percolated through the different social strata, says Jacoby. And though the average working person could still put aside fairly little after taxes (a fixture since ancient Egypt), a new motivation to stockpile cash emerged.

"Envy had always played a part in people's lives, probably since biblical times," says Jacoby. "But the systematic reliance on consumption as a form of social status is usually associated with the Gilded Age."

Today's mallgoers may clamor for the latest in digital devices for the home or office.

But back at the dawn of the 20th century, a tiny little machine called the typewriter was about to shake up the workplace again. "Between 1895 and 1905, there may have been a greater revolution in handling information in the office than with the Information Age today," says Walter Licht, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who attributes that shakeup to the typewriter.

Hand printing was out. The skill of the day: pounding keys.

With the typewriter came a flood of women into the office place - most of them single. Public pressure kept most married women at home. "The idea was to save the jobs for the men with families," says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Efforts to address racial and gender inequality in the workplace led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on gender or race.

Before then, concerns were simpler. Companies were searching for ways to motivate employees.

After all, the Industrial Revolution had fundamentally altered the way people worked. Those who had spent a lifetime learning and honing a craft suddenly become cogs in a wheel. Standards of living rose, but the trade-off was a loss of any sense of ownership of what was produced.

Days were filled with repetitive tasks that left workers struggling to find meaning in stacks of pig iron and paperwork.

"In the 1920s, you have this welfare capitalist movement," says Professor Licht. "In order to engender greater loyalty, firms began to offer greater benefits." (Sound familiar?)

Life insurance for workers debuted. So did the company baseball team.

After World War II, unionism took off. By the mid-1940s unions were at their strongest Some 35 percent of workers were unionized back then, compared to 14 percent today.

Around this time, companies also started pitching full-time employment. "The way companies attempted to glue the workforce to the large corporation," Cornfield says, "was through an expectation of a long-term career coupled with important fringe benefits."

As a result, middle management was born. And business schools were seen in a new light. "Most business schools were really terrible places before that. If you couldn't get into the physical-education department, you went to the business school," quips Harold Leavitt, a professor at Stanford Business School in Calif.

Then in the 1950s, corporate America went one step further. Not only did they promise a full-time job - but a job for life in return for loyal service.

Thus "the organization man" was born. The phrase was coined by William H. Whyte, whose 1956 book by that name delved into the lives of middle-class men in Forest Park, Ill., who worked for large companies.

In the late 1970s, American management began to panic when the Japanese started to produce better-quality goods at cheaper prices. Overnight the American version of teamwork was born, as were downsizing, rightsizing, and restructuring.

Suddenly, middle management became the target, and the stability of a job-for-life vanished.

In the meantime, the computer invaded the workplace. And once again, the way Americans work changed forever.

Today, thanks to cellphones, laptops, pagers, portable faxes, globalization, and the Internet, the 24-hour, anywhere-based workplace has become a reality.

Women, through the '70s and '80s pushed to shatter the glass ceiling and have climbed the corporate ladder all the way up to the corner office.

At the same time, dual-career families have brought on new issues. For the first time, balancing work and personal life have hit the top of the list. At the same time, workers must now grapple with managing their own careers.

The expectations of work are higher, too.

"People are no longer satisfied with making enough money to take home and feed their families," says Professor Leavitt. "People are much more concerned with fulfilling themselves [on the job]."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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