Most of us work for living or at least have been at some point in our lives. Unless born into wealth, to meet our daily needs we have to sell our time, skills, knowledge or in some cases even bodies, for money with which to pay for goods and services we either need and/or want. Ever since the ascent of money as the universal unit of value, that is our daily formula. Before the arrival of money, labour was exchanged for goods such as beer (Mesopotamia), salt (Rome), precious metals (Incas) and similar.
And it is a fascinating formula indeed; not only that most of us find it taxing to the greater or lesser degree, but we also often dream of a life without waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, and going to the designated place to work for the specified number of hours. Often we use those dreams to help us deal with our working hours, until such time we either become too old to work, or find a way to fulfil our dreams.
Even the language we use reflects our feelings; when talking about the activities we undertake for pay, we often use words such as ‘toil’, ‘slog’, ‘grind’, ‘graft’ , ‘slog’ or ‘drudge’, while words like ‘freedom’, ‘creativity’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘self-expression’, ‘vocation’ are used to describe what we dream of.
Let us for a moment take a closer look.
If we accept that term ‘work’ refers to any activity that either produces, or improves something, or serves in some way either ourselves or others, than it is clear that work has had a critical role in human development.
Every aspect of our existence requires active input and performance of certain activities; from gathering/purchasing to preparing food, from raising our young, to organizing our shelters/houses. We do not usually receive a direct or monetary reward for that kind of work, and we often do not classify those life sustaining activities as ‘work.’
Then there is of course voluntary work we undertake for betterment of communities we inhabit. That work is also often associated with non-tangible or direct rewards such as payments.
Once those types of activities (work to sustain life, raise family and contribute to community) are taken out of equation, work for hire is what remains.
According to history records the first workers to receive payment for their labour where Mesopotamians who received payments in jugs of beer! That indicates two things;
- that beer must have been valuable enough to be used as a reward, and obviously Mesopotamians loved it, and
- that there must have been some form of organization (religious or administrative) owning sufficient quantities of beer to make payments. In other words; there were those who own the beer and those who wanted it enough to work for it!
Some historical records suggest that early Roman soldiers may have been paid in salt, at the time precious ingredient strictly controlled by the ruling elite. This is because Latin term ‘sal dare’ means ‘to give salt’ and soldiers were paid ‘salarium’, a term from which our word ‘salary’ originates. All that indicates possible link between salt-soldier-and hire for payment, hence the saying; ‘worth one’s salt’.
Even very broad analysis of work over the centuries shows that, except for work organized and paid for by governments (soldiering, public work) or religious elites (building of religious monuments), until the Industrial Revolution of late 18th and 19th century, most people worked as farmers and some as craftsmen (blacksmiths, bronze smiths, etc.). In essence, their labour provided sustenance for them and their families. There was a direct link between those two aspects of living; work and sustenance. Industrial Revolution took that link away.
In 19th century factories slowly replaced small workshops, and industrial revolution eventually created huge demand for labour; often cheap labour of women and children. Historical records show that children as young as 5 worked in early textile factories and even coal mines for more than 12 hours a day! The first law aimed at curtailing child labour was not passed until 1833. It banned children age 9 to 13 from working for more than 12 hours a day. It also stated that children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week, and those under 18 cannot work at night. However, the effectiveness of the law depended largely on diligence of those tasked with enforcing it.
In the early 20th century problems of depression and huge unemployment triggered the Second World War and were by far and large resolved by it; curtsy of insatiable war machinery. Post-war years (40s, 50s and 60s) were years of plenty and unemployment was very low. That changed somewhat in late 80s and 90s. Second part of the 20th century was also marked by significant decline in traditional industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, or textile production, while service industries such as tourism, education, retail, IT grew rapidly.
All that brought substantial and much needed changes in working conditions, at least in the world we call ‘first’ or ‘developed’ or ‘western’. The harsh and often grossly inhuman working conditions, including child labour, remain alive and well in those worlds we use different terms for, such as ‘third’, ‘developing’ or ‘poor’. However, that is the topic for another time.
Improvements in working conditions, especially agreements on number of hours per day/week/year one is engaged in paid work, together with the onset and more recently explosion in IT developments, resulted in significantly more time becoming available to working men and women for leisure, and/or pursuit of personal interests.
As a result, and perhaps for the first time in the history of human kind, ordinary men and women, those of us neither born into wealth, or aristocracy, or any privileges, those of us broadly referred to as ‘working class’, become able to indulge in such activities as self-expressions through art, or music, or literature, or sports … the activities formerly reserved for those privileged by either birth and/or wealth with which to secure time and energy required.
It is therefore no wonder we witness proliferation of ‘self-expressiveness’ everywhere around us, most notably on internet (like this blog for instance -:). Unlike 19th century factory worker, who was far too exhausted to do anything else apart from working and resting in between shifts, we now have time and energy left over after paid work to first find, and then pursue our personal interests. But this is also where the ‘catch’ may lie.
(to be continued …)