The History of Work

(This is the 1st post in our 2018 "Celebrating Work" series. Each week we're highlighting a different theme about work and asking YOU to help contribute. Join in and let us know your perspective on work!)

As we begin our “Celebrating Work” series, we thought it made sense to start by looking at the history of work throughout human civilization. How has our view of work changed over the centuries? What are the different types of jobs we’ve held, and what has impacted the type of work we do? How exactly did we go from working on farms to working in cubicles?

Sound a little daunting for the first week? Maybe—we could easily fill an entire library with all of the info on this topic. And we don’t necessarily have time for that (and we assume you don’t either). So we won’t go into every small detail of human history, but we thought it would be helpful (and maybe even a little fun!) to look at a few major highlights and give some context to our conversation these next two months.


Laying the Foundation

If you know anything about Jobs for Life, you know that our faith in God is at the center of everything we do, and we look to God’s Word to help guide and direct our path. So as we dig into the history of work, it’s important for us to start from a Biblical perspective.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, not only provides an account of the origin of life, but also lays the foundation for the theology of work. Genesis tells the story of God’s work of creation (Genesis 1:1 - “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”; Genesis 1:27 - “So God created mankind in his own image”), and we learn about man’s very first job (Genesis 2:15 - “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”). So we can see that at the very beginning of time, God was working. He created man, in His image, to work. And work was good.

(We’ll be focusing more on God’s design of work next week, and will be taking a closer look at Genesis and how work is viewed in Scripture.)

Now that we’ve laid the foundation, it’s time to hit the history books!


From Hunting and Gathering To Cultivating and Building

The work activities of early humans were mainly focused on the hunting and gathering of food and the caring and rearing of children. These ancient hunter-gatherers lived in small groups, normally about 10-12 adults and their children. They moved frequently so the gatherers could search for berries and other plants and the hunters could follow the wild animals.

Farming would begin to replace the gathering and hunting of food, as people discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. As hunter-gatherers shifted to this type of work, they quit the nomadic life and began building and settling into villages and towns. Even as we look back at Scripture, we can see how occupations developed from the simple task to the more complex and from unskilled to skilled labor. As villages grew larger, and commerce between cities and nations expanded, various trades and crafts continued to expand with them. Some of the jobs might have included baker, butler, scribe, soldier, and merchant.


More Complex Societies and More Specialized Work

What followed was a revolutionary change in the nature of work. An increase in food supply laid the groundwork for more complex societies that could support larger populations. As new towns were established, more specialized occupations developed in commerce, law, medicine, and defense. The increasing complexity of these professions required permanent records, which fostered the development of writing and bookkeeping.

Larger villages and more people also meant more rigid, hierarchical class structures. Kings and nobles were in power and were supported by warriors; priests served as government officials; merchants sold the products of artisans and craftsmen; peasants worked family farms; and slaves worked in mines and craft workshops. Larger projects, such as pyramids and aqueducts, were directed by master builders, who were assisted by foremen and scribes. The work mobilized large groups of workers ranging from craftsmen to slaves.


From Despising Work To Finding Work You Loved

Work, for much of history up to this point, had been hard (and often degrading). Those in nobility and the educated classes considered labouring and farming work to be inherently humiliating. Instead of working, they used slaves to take care of their lands and fortunes. Leisure time (reading, traveling, hosting dinner parties, etc.) were the sole basis for a life of happiness. People worked because it meant survival, and if you were rich enough, you simply chose not to work.

The Protestant Reformation would play a major role in changing our view of work. Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation stressed the spiritual and moral value of economic activity. He believed that God works through ordinary human beings to care for His creation, and that the work we do in the family, church, and in the community is important to the overall social and economic well-being of a culture. He taught that the number one way we love our neighbor is by doing our jobs well. Some believe that Luther’s teachings played a pivotal role in improving economic mobility, access to education, and overall growth in societal flourishing.

(Next week we’ll discuss vocational planning and finding our dream job.)


The Industrial Revolution (1700’s)

Skipping forward from ancient to modern times (see, I told you we were only hitting the major highlights!) we see how The Industrial Revolution marked a shift away from individual farmers and artisans to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production, replacing traditional rural lifestyles as people migrated to cities in search of work. Men, women and children worked in the new factories operating machines that spun and wove cloth, or made pottery, paper and glass.

The working conditions of factories, simply put, were terrible during the Industrial Revolution. There were often several machines with little to no safety precautions, and not much maintenance, resulting in many accidents. Employers were able to set wages as low as they wanted because people were willing to work as long as they got paid, so a typical unskilled worker may only receive about 10 cents/hour working 14-16 hours/week. Women received one-third or sometimes one-half the pay that men received. Children received even less.

(We will continue to explore the topic of “Healthy Work Environments” and “Work And The Marginalized” in the coming weeks).

With the railroad, farmers could now focus on specific crops and shipping them long distances. All of this now required more paperwork, keeping track of inventory, routes, and accounts, so clerks became a common job during this period. After the economic shift of industrialization, more people were needed to manage these clerks and factory workers. This quickly evolved into industrial organization, scientific management, and vocational training.


The 20th Century

Let’s now step into modern times. Before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of factory work in the late 1800s, most people were self-employed farmers or artisans. By the 1900s, however, most people were employees. New consumer products (and lots of them!) in the 20th century led to the creation of hundreds of jobs that had not previously existed. The automobile was introduced, which created an entire new line of work.

The 20th century was a remarkable period for the American worker, as wages rose, fringe benefits grew, and working conditions improved. Technology was obviously a major factor during this time as communication and measuring devices, computer controlled equipment, the x-ray, the circuit breaker, lasers, fiber optics, stainless steel (the list goes on and on!) were developed. As mechanization continued to increase in the early 1900s, taller buildings, “skyscrapers”, were needed to house the growing population of clerks and middle management. The standardized office units that we know today as cubicles were first called “cells.”

(Visit this page to learn more about career trends in the 20th Century.)


Work in the 21st Century

Improvements in technology, changes in everyday interactions, and rising living standards have created a need for entirely new types of jobs and occupations. The digital age has caused upheaval for many industries, and many fields have seen more change in the last five years alone than in the last 50 combined. The job-seeker of today isn’t just choosing among a few traditional jobs or simple tasks—now, there’s a wide array of skill sets and technologies that men and women can use in jobs that didn’t exist just 30 years ago (including virtual assistant, app developer, web analyst, and information security analyst).

(During the last week of our “Celebrating Work” series we’ll focus on the future of work, and explore where advancements in technology and culture will take us next.)


What Have We Learned?

As we look back at the history of work through human civilization, we see that society is constantly changing, along with shifts in the environment, culture, and technology. Our jobs have become even more specialized and diverse, and it’s getting easier to to find a specific job and career that fits our unique skill set and passion.

Throughout most of history, a job was not something you were meant to love or find fulfilling. You worked because you had to—you worked to survive. To find a job you loved and wanted to do every day would have seemed silly and strange in ancient civilizations. It’s a relatively new concept that we can now find work we not only tolerate, or endure for the money, but profoundly appreciate.

At Jobs for Life, we believe work CAN mean more than just a paycheck. We believe that work can bring us purpose and dignity, knowing it’s what God created us to do. We also realize there is work to be done to help our neighbors who are unemployed or underemployed find a job that is meaningful to them.

So, let’s get to work!


Now, we want to hear from you!

What’s the history of YOUR work? What was your first job? How did working for the first time make you feel? What did you love/hate about it? What lessons did you learn? Tell us your story in the comments below, or leave a comment on this Facebook post.


About The Author

Alex Ford

Alex Ford, Marketing and Communications Manager

Alex grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina, later moving to Raleigh where he earned his degree in Graphic Design from the College of Design at North Carolina State University. He now works at Jobs for Life, where he is able to combine his love for design and marketing with his passion for community development and serving those in need. Alex lives in Raleigh with his beautiful wife, Caroline, and spends his free time playing basketball, hiking, and volunteering at Neighbor to Neighbor in downtown Raleigh.