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How did the nature of work change during the 20th century? Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 12 October 2017

How did the nature of work change during the 20th century?

The industrial revolution transformed the nature of work. It involved a breakthrough in the use of inanimate energy and power, massive investment in industries such as iron, coal, and textiles and a transport revolution. Industrialization changed the dimension of work. In pre-industrial society “those who are employed experience a distinction between their employers time and their “own” time. And the employer must use the time of his labour, and see it is not wasted, time is now currency: it is not passed but spent.

Writing in the 19th century, Marx predicted that the intermediate strata would be depressed into the proletariat. However during the latter 20th century, a number of sociologist’s had suggested that the opposite was happening. They claimed that a process of embourgeoisement was occurring whereby increasing numbers of manual worker’s were entering the middle class. During the 1950’s there was a general increase in prosperity in advanced industrial societies and, in particular, amongst a growing number of manual worker’s whose earning’s fell within the white-collar range. These highly paid affluent workers’s were seen to be increasingly typical of manual worker’s.

This development, coupled with study’s, which suggested that poverty was rapidly disappearing, led to the belief that the shape of stratification system was being transformed. From the triangle or pyramid shape of the 19th century (with a large and relatively impoverished working class at the bottom and a small wealthy group at the top), it was argued that the stratification system was changing to a diamond or pentagon shape with an increasing proportion of the population falling into the middle range. In this middle mass society, the mass of the population was middle rather than working class.

The U.S work activity has changed radically For example. In the 1950’s, about 20% of the workforce was professional, 20% skilled and 60% unskilled. By the 1970 the comparable figures were about 20% for professional, less than 20% for unskilled and over 60% for skilled. This reflects a change both in the skills required for new and emerging jobs and the rising skill demands for existing jobs.

The theory used to explain this presumed development was a version of economic determinism. It was argued that the demands of modern technology an advanced industrial economy determined the shape of the stratification system. E.g. American sociologist Clark Kerr claimed that advanced industrialism request’s an increasingly highly educated, trained and skilled workforce which in turn leads to a higher pay and status occupations. In particular skilled technicians are rapidly replacing unskilled machine minders. Jessie Bernard argued that working-class affluence is related to the needs of an industrial economy for a mass market. In order to expand, industry requires a large market for its products. Mass consumption has been made possible because large sectors of modern industry have relatively low labour costs and high productivity.

Bernard claimed that there is a rapidly growing middle market, which reflects the increased purchasing power of affluent manual worker’s. Home ownership and consumer and consumer durables such as washing machine’s, refrigerators, televisions and motorcars are no longer the preserve of white-collar workers. With reference to the class system, Bernard say’s ” The proletariat has not absorbed the middle class but rather the other way round, in the sense that the class structure here described reflects modern technology. It vindicates the Marxist thesis that social organisation is “determined” by technological forces. (Goldthorpe and Lockwood 1969, p.9.)

Change in the nature of work has also been driven by the changes in organization structures and the design of management often referenced as the shift from “fordism” to “post-fordism”. “Fordism” is named after Henry Ford, the American car manufacturer who pioneered mass production, which involved fairly rigid, highly structured and hierarchical forms of management. Michael J. Piore is amongst those who believe that capitalist countries have entered a “post-fordism” era.

He claims that much work is now organised according to the principals of flexible specialization, management now involves more team-based work settings, with more governance, greater decentralization and less hierarchical or “top-down” management. As a result of this shift in organization and management, job design has changed form being narrow, repetitive, simplified, standardized in the old system to being broad, doing many task’s and having multiple responsibilities in the new system. Employees are now required to be multi/cross skilled, whereas specialized skills were required in the old system.

These shifts are not likely to slow or lesson in the immediate future and the current economy suggests that these are the more rapid growing industries and job growth in these types of industries will outpace the rate of growth in other industries where the skills demands may be less.

Worker’s in companies which are changing along these lines need to be more broadly trained as their work becomes increasingly varied. Because of their long training and the importance of their skills to their companies, they enjoy more job security, and management makes greater attempts to enlist their cooperation.

Some firms have adopted another Japanese technique, quality circles. In quality circles groups of workers and managers meet together periodically to discuss how the production or performance of the company can be improved.

Other initiatives may include worker’s representatives sitting on company boards, and profit-sharing scheme’s, which enable worker’s to benefit from any success the company enjoys.

Flexible specialization then, increases the skills needed by the workforce, and unlike industries where scientific management techniques are used; workers may cooperate with management in organizing the labour process. By, implication, job satisfaction increases and industrial conflict decreases.

The theory of flexible specialization also implies a move away from the concentration of capital in giant corporations and an increase in the number of small businesses.

The British economist John Atkinson has developed similar views in his theory of the flexible firm. Atkinson believes that a variety of factors have encouraged managers to make their firms more flexible. Economic recession in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the consequent reduction in trades union power, technological changes and a reduction in the working week, has all made flexibility more desirable and easier to achieve.

According to Atkinson flexibility takes two main forms. One of which is functional flexibility, this refers to the ability of managers to redeploy workers between different tasks. Functional flexibility requires the employment of multi-skilled employees who are capable of working in different areas within a firm. Such flexible workers form the core of a company’s workforce. They are employed full-time and have considerable job security. The core is usually made up of “managers, designers, technical sales staff, quality control staff, technicians and craftsmen”.

The second form of flexibility is numerical flexibility, which is provided by peripheral groups. Numerical flexibility refers to the ability of firms to reduce or increase the size of their labour force. The first peripheral group have full-time jobs but enjoy less job security than core workers. These workers might be “clerical, supervisory, component assembly and testing”, and they are easier to recruit than core workers because their skills are common to employment in many different firms. The second peripheral group of workers are even more flexible. They are not full-time permanent employees. They may work part-time, on short-term contracts, under temporary contracts or under government-training schemes. Atkinson believes that flexible firms are making increasing use of external sources of labour. More work is subcontracted and the self-employed and agency temporaries are used.

A change in the attitudes towards work has also changed as a result of industrialization. The historian Thompson argues that large-scale, machine powered industry necessitated the introduction of new working patterns and with them new attitudes. According to Thompson pre-industrial work was regulated by task orientation; the new necessities of the job determined when and how hard people worked. However in post-industrialization the patterns of work are based round time rather than tasks. Thompson says “time is now currency; it is not passed but spent”. Workers who were used to a considerable amount of control over their work patterns experienced the new working day in the factory, with its emphasis on punctuality, as oppressive.

They resented having to work to the clock. The early factory owners had considerable problems trying to persuade people to take jobs in factories. When they had recruited workers they often regarded their reluctant employees as work-shy and lazy. They therefore sought to change their attitudes and get them to accept new working patterns. According to David Lee and Howard Newby: “workers brought up under the assumptions of “task orientation”, were subject to massive indoctrination on the folly of “wasting” time by their employers, a moral critique of idleness which stemmed from the puritan work ethic”.

One of the major changes in the nature of work is that the modern concept of the “housewife” was created in the 20th century. In earlier times, although there were clearly differentiated gender roles, there was little doubt that men and women were both involved in production. No one would have described the wife in a household of European peasants, or American pioneers, as primarily a consumer. In mid-nineteenth century America, households still carried out a vast range of productive activities; growing and preparing food, sewing and mending cloths, and reusing fabric scraps in quilts, rugs, and homemade upholstery, making and repairing furniture, tools, and other household goods, even making candles and sop from household wastes.

The expansion of consumer goods industries toward the end of the 19th century began to change all this, providing affordable mass-produced substitutes for many things that had formerly been made at home. This industrial change allowed, and perhaps required, the rise of a consumer society. In the new regime, the work of the housewife shifted away from material production, toward consumption of marketed goods combined with carrying for, or “nurturing”, other family members. The change was a contradictory one, at once liberating women form exhausting toil, and commercialising daily life to an ever-expanding extent.

Over the past century the way in which we go about getting work done has changed dramatically and this has created and facilitated fundamentally different social arrangements in the workplace. Indeed the application of new technologies has created new workplaces and challenged our thinking about where certain kinds of work can and should be done. Technological advances have resulted in the sharp divisions between professionals, skilled workers and unskilled workers being altered dramatically in the latter stages of this century. Whereas a century ago there were far more unskilled workers than skilled ones, in today’s world this has completely reversed and there are know far more skilled workers than unskilled.


(1) The sociology of work; Keith Grint

(2) The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism: Richard Sennett

(3) The future of work: Charles Handy

(4) Briton in Europe: Tony Spybey

(5) Www.islandpress.org/ecocompass/changingnatow/changing

Free How did the nature of work change during the 20th century? Essay Sample


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 12 October 2017

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