The world of work

100,000s leaving their existing work to seize new opportunities, moving from long established homes to fresh and different surroundings, abandoning traditional support networks and employment, leveraging new technologies and infrastructure. Ok, so this is another post on the Great Resignation – right?

Well, no actually – all of these things were equally true about the great migration to the industrial mill towns in the nineteenth century. The start of the industrial revolution looked, in many ways, remarkably similar to today – albeit the drivers were a little more desperate. But it’s worth thinking about the parallels because it took (if you start with the population moves and reckon that the rise of the welfare state and the origin of the NHS are somewhere towards the end) well over 100 years for all the ramifications to work through. Those years saw:

  • Massive technology introductions, most of which were unimaginable in their final impact when first seen – canals, trains, electricity, cars
  • Societal upheaval from a primarily rural economy to a global industrially based empire with education, household size and composition, democratic engagement and worker organization all changing along side
  • Huge inequality resulting – from the Carnegies to the poorest chimney sweeps boy, with attempts to redress this covering everything from the philanthropy of Saltaire or New Lanark to workhouses
  • Above all, the rise of globalization and the international connectivity of trade, politics and it seems, almost inevitably, war

With hindsight, we now recognize this as the industrial revolution. So what, if we think of today’s context, might posterity recognize as beginning today? I would argue it is the commercialization of earning power – an ugly phrase admittedly, but like the world in 1800, we have no experience of what’s coming, and hence limited language to match it.