The world of work – a trip down memory lane

Facebook is full of trivia and bad grammar but sometimes it throws up something interesting. One such something was a link  to a blog from 2010 by David Cain entitled “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)” I will tell you a bit about that blog in a minute but it set me thinking to how work has changed since I started fifty years ago.

When I started work there were no robots  or highly automated production lines. Some of the older machines were somewhat lethargic – one lathe I operated was so slow that I would switch it on first thing in the morning then get a cup of coffee while it got up to speed. The vertical borer I worked on for a few weeks was well named – while there I mentally wrote a play which I then wrote out each evening (it wasn’t very good – I possibly still have the rejection letter). For those of you who don’t know a vertical borer is a machine tool but unlike a lathe where the workpiece rotates and the tool stays still with the borer the workpiece is stationary and the tool which takes cuts to make a flat face or enlarge a hole is what rotates. Have I lost you yet? – let’s move on.

In the offices there might be one shared phone. A lot of information would be written by hand and spreadsheets would be calculated mentally, by using a mechanical adding machine, a slide rule or log tables. To get written information from one site to another you would use the post which was quite efficient but not as efficient as it was at the turn of the century (the turn of the 20th century that is) when if you were going to be late home from the office you could send a letter to you wife telling her that. When Captain Scott was courting Kathleen they would exchange three or four letters a day rather than telephone each other because telephone calls were always connected by an operator who could listen in to their calls.

This was still true in the 1940’s and 50’s when in the smaller telephone exchanges one man (or woman) would do everything. Until STD came in (that’s subscriber trunk dialling not sexually transmitted disease) long distance calls were still connected by an operator. I remember being in a phone box in Gloucestershire trying to contact someone in Oxford and when the operator couldn’t get through I thought I would try a different number so I said “Could you connect me to directory enquiries” to which the response was “I am directory enquiries”. So he found the new number and connected me.

When I first started work I remember a guy who refused to go the other side of the doors between the factory and the offices (where his daughter worked) even though it was a promotion, because he didn’t want the hassle. He was much more comfortable closer to the action. Sometimes someone in the offices would come up with a better design or better way of making something and would excitedly send it down to the shop floor only to discover that they had worked that out a long time ago and had been making it that way for years.

Through the 60’s and 70’s things gradually changed. On the shop floor numerically controlled machines came in with the realisation that not only could they do extremely complex tasks very well but also simple tasks repeatedly ad infinitum. In the offices things were changing as well – more telephones, fax machines for sending written information between sites and electric typewriters (no word processors yet). When I was producing reports for the Board and Parliament which of course had to be approved by quite a few people and so went through several versions I remember being amazed at how quickly the secretary could accurately retype the whole document for its next review. Later it became trivially easy to amend a document on a word processor – which meant that you were no longer so careful to get it right first time – bang it out and then correct it.

In “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed”the author talks about how his lifestyle changed from what it was like when he was travelling to what it was like after  he returned to work and a 9-5 existence. Not just the obvious change in routine but the change from a  no-income backpacking lifestyle to one where small purchases would be made much more carelessly. He says “In fact, I think I’ve only returned to the normal consumer mentality after having spent some time away from it.” When travelling he spent much less than when working, had much more free time, visited great places and met interesting people and yet it cost him much less than his 9-5 lifestyle – it seems he got much more for his dollar (he’s Canadian) when he was traveling. His conclusion is that a lifestyle of unnecessary spending has been deliberately cultivated and nurtured in the public by big business (and the 9-5 workday is a key part of that). In work he has more money and less time so buys stuff rather than going for a walk or reading a book.

I would take issue on his limiting the workday to 9-5 (despite the European Working Time Directive) because of the changes in technology. When I was working in the midlands I would leave work when my tasks were done and take nothing home. This changed when I moved to London and started commuting by train. My mind-set changed – I would time my day by decent trains and so endeavour to always leave in time to catch the 5.40 from Paddington even if that meant carrying papers in my briefcase to read on the train or at home. However out-of-hours telephone calls were extremely rare – I think I can remember just one and even then we had to be quite cagey in case anyone was listening in.

When a tunnel collapse on my line into London meant that an hour each way was added to my journey I found that I could effectively work at home a few days a week and get more done in the same working time because I could plan better and not be disturbed. Now it is dramatically different with smartphones, internet access and laptops. The dividing line between work and home can become horribly blurred. Good advice for people working from home is to keep a separate workspace, such as a shed at the bottom of the garden, where you could close the door both literally and figuratively when you finished for the day. With your  “office” in your pocket or in a bag which you put down in the living room it is that much more difficult.

But even with this technology available how many people travel to unnecessary face-to-face meetings when the same discussion could be done over the internet? Not that the technology is perfect – I was in an on-line Trustee meeting recently where some communicated (sound and video) via their computers and others by phone – but it still worked. I am horrified when on the roads at the end and start of the day by the amount of traffic moving ridiculously slowly. Again a change from when I started when you would live within walking or cycling distance of your work, or later within a short car journey, and move house if your location moved significantly. Now it seems that the reverse is the case and people will drive for hours every day, cluttering up the roads.

I’ll leave the penultimate word to David Cain (the blogger and writer, not the DC Comics assassin) – moving on from the 14 hour workdays of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution  to today’s 8 hour workday “As technologies and methods advanced, workers in all industries became able to produce much more value in a shorter amount of time. You’d think this would lead to shorter workdays. But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public.”

Interesting thoughts. Working life does seem to have become more frantic and for many the working day (especially if you include travel) is getting ever longer. Who benefits?

See the links below for the previous post – and the next one.


One thought on “The world of work – a trip down memory lane

  1. I’ll second all of the above. A few pals and myself have just returned from a ‘Walking Weekend’ in Dorset. Fabulous scenery, good company, food and drink (of course) and plenty of time to enjoy it. So much better than work; and on a similar vein, my daughter rang up last Friday to tell us she’d handed in her notice at work, we asked where she was changing her work to? Answer, ‘Nowhere, I just wanted to get out.’ She’s decided to enjoy life instead. Our reaction? Well done, about time. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s