Friday 2 February 2024

Jobs then and now

Johann Hamza, The Blacksmith's Forge. Public domain.             
Somewhere in an elderly relative’s mouse-chewed attic there probably sits a dusty photograph of you – you as a child, smiling and proud one Halloween, wearing a tiny uniform of the thing you were going to be. You had it all planned out; you were going to be a farmer or fireman, cowboy or doctor, or some other role that a child can instantly identify and adore.

For most of us life hasn’t worked out that way. A few become firefighters, of course (one in a thousand) or doctors (two in a thousand), but most of us -- for the first time in human history -- do not work at jobs that any child would understand or care about. Three-quarters of Westerners work office jobs – telemarketers, marketing managers, Assistant Diversity Officers, and other growing titles that never existed until yesterday, all to describe where we fit in an ecosystem of office plankton. Everyone jokes grimly about hating their job and hangs Dilbert cartoons on their cubicles, and waits until Friday, as they cling like fleas to the undersides of corporations for as long as they can before being dislodged.

It was a shock, then, to hear my elderly neighbours talk of their work life. Many learned crafts passed down through families until they became surnames – smith, mason, miller, thatcher, tailor, baker, carter, cooper, and wright. By the time they were men and women they were respected masters, keepers of secrets handed down through generations. They spoke of shaping wood and iron and leather in ways everyone could see and respect. Saddlers and scutchers, farriers and felters, cobblers and cordwainers – even grave-diggers and churchbell-ringers spoke of their jobs with an enthusiasm I rarely see today.

“I jump out of bed on a Sunday morning for my ringing day,” said bell-ringer Leslie Taylor in an interview in Dublin Voices. “I am the elected ringing master, chosen by my fellow ringers who are members of the society ...I’m one of the people who have in one way or another serviced the cathedral in some way since its foundation in 1038. ... I’d like to die in the belfry … when I’m ringing.”

It’s worth examining why most people in traditional societies spoke so fondly of their jobs and modern people do not, since work would seem to be one area where life has unarguably improved in modern times. The long hours and unsafe conditions we remember from Dickens and Upton Sinclair have much improved, thanks to unions and labour laws, and for that we should be grateful.

Victorian factories and coal mines, though, were a historical anomaly, appearing only with the discovery of fossil fuels. Before the mid-1800s in Britain, and the mid-1900s in Ireland, most people were farmers or craftsmen. Also, when people today refer to “modern” jobs, they tend to be those of middle-to-upper-clasFirst-Worlders, not those of the near-slaves that made our clothes and laptops. We compare the worst of their time with the best of ours.

If we compare our eight-hour day in a cubicle to the 15-hour day of a Victorian factory worker, both working corporate jobs for hourly wages, of course we come out far ahead. As Jaques Ellul pointed out, though, we can’t compare our office job to the day of a village craftsman, who chooses their own tempo and rhythm, who mentors and is aided by apprentices or children, and who stops to chat with passers-by. We can praise the progress from 1850 to 1950, he said, but “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable.”

Making hay in Ireland (Irish photo archive)
Even then, Ellul was assuming a 15-hour day, but most of our ancestors -- craftsmen and peasants – worked far less. Historian James Thorold Rogers estimated that medieval peasants – whom we think of as the most menial peoples of the most backward age – worked no more than eight hours a day, a figure backed up by several other studies. Labourers rarely worked an entire day for a lord; half a solar day’s work was considered a full working day, so peasants who worked sunrise to sunset were credited for two days’ work. Medieval Christians, moreover, had so many holidays – in the literal sense of “holy days” – that Nora Ritchie calculated they only worked half as many days per year as modern Americans.

The modern age has many advantages, of course; I can pull open a laptop and work from anywhere, and make more in a month than my great-grandparents made in a year. I'm grateful for all that. But most of those jobs move electrons around a screen; they build nothing, and leave us with nothing that we can feel or use, or say we built. They are part of a world that gives us everything we want, but little that we need. More on that next week.

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