The History of Human Labor

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Podcast Transcript

Ever since humans came out of the African savannah, they have had to work to survive. 

But the nature of work has changed dramatically since we had to hunt wooly mammoths for food. We’ve gone from hunting to farming to sitting in front of a computer making podcasts. 

Along the way, labor has become a subject of study for economists, an organizing force in politics, and a driving force in culture.

Learn more about human labor and how it changed over time on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is going to be a bit different than most. 

I’ll usually talk about some event, a thing, or a person with some sort of reasonable parameter on what I’ll be talking about. 

In this episode, I want to talk about something that is a bit more vague and a concept that is much more expansive: labor. 

In the United States, we have a labor day. In some countries, they have a Labor party. There are labor economists and labor historians. 

One of the problems is defining exactly what labor means. If you look at the definition of labor, you’ll find some very different meanings. 

One says the “expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory.” This would be like being sentenced to hard labor.

Another definition says, “the services performed by workers for wages as distinguished from those rendered by entrepreneurs for profits.” This implies work that is explicitly wage labor. 

Yet another definition says, “human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy.” In this sense, labor is synonymous with work. 

For the purpose of this episode, I’m going to focus on the third definition, which is work, but that will naturally eventually lead to talking about the second definition. 

So, with that, the discussion of labor has to start with the earliest humans who were hunter-gatherers. While hunter-gatherer is the term that is often used to describe our nomadic ancestors, in terms of what they actually ate, most everything revolved around hunting, and in particular hunter megafauna, or very large animals. 

Divisions of labor, aka figuring out who did what were very crude. Almost all hunter-gatherer people who have been studied showed a sexual division of labor. Men and women did different things. What they did would be different based on the community and where they lived, but they almost always did different tasks. 

You might think that means men hunted and women gathered, and that was sometimes the case, but not always. There are aboriginal people in Australia where both men and women hunted, but they hunted different things. 

Each group would have their own initiation rites for becoming a man or a woman and passing along their own secrets regarding the work they did.

All labor in such a community was directly tied to survival. Hunting for food, making clothes, and collecting herbs for medicine were all directly associated with living and dying. 

While their labor was directly tied to survival, it doesn’t mean that they were in a constant manic state of trying to live. Most modern anthropologists now think that hunter-gatherers actually had a large amount of leisure time. 

Much of this had to do with the efficiency of hunting large game animals. Depending on the size of the group, a wooly rhinosaurus or an auroch could potentially feed a band of people for a week or two. There was no point in producing more food than your group could consume.

Eventually, sometime after the end of the last ice age, all of this changed. Approximately 11,000-12,000 years ago, humans worldwide shifted from nomadic hunting and gathering to becoming settled agriculturalists. 

We tend to think of this as a universally good thing, but it was actually a mixed bag. 

Early farmers were still ultimately working for survival. The food they grew was the food they would consume. 

When times were good, they could actually create a surplus of food, which was something that had never been possible before. Grain could be stored for extended periods.  This surplus was necessary if they had a season with a bad harvest. 

Farmers, unlike hunters, couldn’t easily pick up and move if conditions were bad. The fixed nature of farms made them vulnerable to attacks from bandits and neighboring enemies. 

However, from a labor perspective, the one thing that agriculture allowed for was a more advanced division of labor. Surplus food could be traded to people who worked on creating things that didn’t have anything to do directly with food production. 

Crafters, traders, and merchants were allowed to flourish. An entire segment of society that wasn’t involved in producing food. Something that would have been unheard of with hunter-gatherers. 

This also included kings and emperors. Previously, bands of hunters might have had a chief or a leader, but they still had to perform the same tasks as everyone else fundamentally. 

Now, you had a small class of people who did nothing but attempt to provide security and stability, often surrounded by elaborate rituals, monuments, and temples. 

Also, with the rise of agriculture, the amount of leisure time decreased. 

Money eventually developed, which I’ve covered in a previous episode,  which served as a medium of exchange that didn’t involve barter. 

Ancient civilizations also began practicing large-scale slavery. People from conquered lands, debtors, or criminals were often forced into labor. Slaves could be forced to work in extremely brutal environments such as a mine or a quarry, or they could be domestic servants in the home of someone wealthy.

For thousands of years, this was basically the state of human labor around the world. It was heavily agricultural, with a small but slowly growing number of people who lived in cities engaged in the handcrafted production of items or the trading of goods. 

Many of these tradespeople who weren’t engaged directly in farming would have been involved in guilds. Masons, coopers, blacksmiths, millers, etc. These guilds served not only to train new members but also as a barrier to new competition.  A guild often had a royal charter or something similar, which allowed them to monopolize the trade. 

Life for farmers wasn’t great. Institutions such as feudalism and serfdom developed to tie peasants to their lords or to the land and gave them little or no choice about what they could do or where they could live. While the names were different, institutions similar to feudalism and serfdom developed all over the world where people working the land were tied to an emperor, king, chief, or satrap. 

What really changed the nature of these agriculture-dominant societies was the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century.

Industrialization saw a giant leap in workers’ productivity through the use of machines. More could be made with fewer people so long as those people worked on machines. 

This jump in productivity grabbed the attention of some scholars, who began to think about work, productivity, and trade. These were the first economists. 

What is widely considered to be the first treatise on economics was The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, which was released in 1776. 

There are many subjects that Smith covered, but one of the most important was the recognition of the importance of the division of labor. When people divide work into separate tasks, they can be more productive and make more of whatever it is they are making.

The example he used was the manufacture of pins. Several people who performed different tasks associated with making pins could create vastly more than the same people who all tried to make pins individually. 

As with the transition to agriculture, the transition to industrialization wasn’t without its problems.

In the early 19th century, from around 1811 to 1816, a movement arose among English textile workers who called themselves Luddites. They often sabotaged machinery that they thought produced inferior goods and drove down wages. 

Throughout the 19th century, there was a movement away from farms and to cities to work in factories and other industrial-related sectors. 

Working conditions were, by 21st-century standards, quite poor throughout the 19th century.  There were extremely long working hours, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and child labor. 

What drove many people to work in factories was that conditions in rural areas were often much worse. Things might have been bad in a factory, but you could at least earn money, eat, and have a place to live, which was more than was the case amongst the rural poor. 

Nonetheless, the poor and dangerous work environments led to workers beginning to organize for higher wages, shorter work weeks, and improved working conditions.

They also highlighted the division between those who owned the capital and those who supplied the labor. 

Capital, like labor, is a very ambiguous phrase in economics and business. It can have different meanings depending on how it is used. It can refer to money, it can refer to knowledge when it refers to human capital, but it usually just means anything that goes into production that is not labor. This includes machines, tools, buildings, equipment, etc.

Capital is the root of the word capitalism, which was coined in the mid-19th century to describe the economic system that was in place. 

Labor unions grew in prominence in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Workers realized that if they acted in concert, they could negotiate better working conditions or potentially cripple a company by withdrawing their labor and going on strike. 

Eventually, in the early 20th century, in many Western countries, workers’ demands went beyond labor negotiations and spilled over into the political realm. Laws were passed regarding children working, limiting the number of hours per week someone could work, workplace safety, and many other laws that most of us take for granted today. 

The 20th century saw the rise of yet another significant change in labor, a little more than a century after the rise of industrialization, white-collar labor, or knowledge workers. 

This category of labor has always existed in the form of merchants, bankers, and managers. 

However, as economies grew and industrialization became even more efficient, people who could handle finances, logistics, and management became even more important. 

The term “white collar” to refer to a category of workers was first used in 1910 in the Norfolk, Nebraska Weekly News-Journal. It was reporting on homesteaders who “had the good sense to leave a cheap, white-collar job, deny himself fleeting luxuries, take up the cross, and follow—the plow.”

The corresponding term blue-collar to refer to people doing manual labor appeared in 1924 when the Alden, Iowa Times suggested, “If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue-collar jobs.”

Despite the industrialization of the 19th century, at the start of the 20th century, many people still worked in agriculture. However, advances in agricultural productivity in the 20th century, including artificial fertilizer and mechanical tractors, quickly saw the number of people engaged in farm labor rapidly decrease. 

After the Second World War, blue-collar jobs were dominant, but white-collar jobs quickly began to rise. The advent of computers and the internet brought about the same increase in productivity to knowledge work that machines and mechanization brought to industrial production and agriculture. 

Today, in the United States, the percentage of white-collar workers has, for the first time, surpassed the number of blue-collar workers. An estimated 60% of the workforce is now engaged in some sort of employment, which is considered non-manual white-collar work. 

However, this is far from the end of the story of changes to the labor market, and we can’t really be sure of where things will go from here. 

Many blue-collar workers, such as plumbers and electricians, have seen their incomes increase dramatically as the supply of workers has gone down, and demand for their services has gone up. 

Likewise, artificial intelligence might see many white-collar jobs disappear as software will be trained to do their jobs faster and cheaper. One company that switched their customer service to AI has seen improvements across every metric they tract, including decreased costs and improved customer satisfaction. 

Another major trend recently has been white-collar workers who no longer want to work in an office. Technology now allows more and more people to work from anywhere, leaving enormous amounts of commercial real estate empty in major cities around the world. 

Despite all of the changes in human labor over the last several thousand years, the changes have never totally replaced what came before. 

There are still hunter-gatherers out there in the form of commercial fishermen.

There are still farmers who grow food for society. 

There are still workers in factories who make the things that everyone uses. 

And there are still people who work in offices.

How people work has changed dramatically over the last 10,000 years and has continued to change even over the last ten years. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Jra4776 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Heard about this on the History Daily Podcast. Came over & I’ve been binging since. Really enjoying this show. Definitely recommend. Keep up the great work.

Thanks, Jra! Just to let you and all other new listeners know, if you keep binging to the point where you have listened to every single episode, you can become a member of the exclusive Completionist Club. We have members around the world and the clubhouse is open 24/7.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.