strivetoengage

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(Guest Post) Book Review – Donkin’s “The History of Work”

As the “Trailing Man” in this Trondheim sojourn – soon to be out of work and at-leisure – I’m pondering the significance of work more than usual.

One source of potential insights into the role of work in modern life is Richard Donkin’s Book, The History of Work. It was originally published in 2001 as Blood, Sweat and Tears. I only came across it recently, however. Admittedly, I was very eager to start reading it immediately, but in the end it proved not as engaging or insightful as I would have hoped.

My enthusiasm for exploring this book arose because, like the author Richard Donkin, I am fascinated about why and how we work and in particular, why we work so much. For that same reason, I was also recently enticed by the podcast of Professor Lord Skidelsky’s presentation at the London School of Economics, Work as a Value, in which he questions why we work so much and what our values are.

Both Donkin’s great book and Lord Skidelsky’s podcast (which is based on his book, How Much is Enough?) were fascinating but also left me searching for more.

Despite its title, The History of Work is not a historical narrative of the development of working practices and the sociology of work. Instead, it is a series of (mostly) work-focussed historical accounts of various depth and detail unified by, and motivated from, Donkin’s questioning of our motives and commitment to work.

Donkin, a former Financial Times columnist, is upfront about this motivation, stating in the introduction that the more he writes about work the more questions why we work and why we work so much. The questioning attitude emerges subtly in the book, however, so that in the introduction paragraphs of social commentary (below) emerge between snippets from a historical text or an anecdote about the modern work regime:

Work has come to dominate the lives of the salaried masses, so much so that they are losing the ability to play. It is as if the world has become split into two societies – one with the means to enjoy leisure but not the time, and one that has the time but not the means.

Richard Donkin. The History of Work, pg. xvii.

This makes for an interesting book, full of colourful and dynamic insights, but one that doesn’t always carry as well as it could in terms of a narrative. It has the feel of a book written from the bottom-up, built with blocks of historical insights held together by the underlying paradigm of uninspected working habits and ubiquitous overwork.

By focussing first on certain historical events and secondly on their relevance to work the narrative seems disjointed and sometimes incidental. For example, the disproportionate focus on the textile industry in Britain leaves one wondering how work practices and paradigms developed elsewhere in the world, in different industries and at different times.

In some chapters, such as Chapter 3 on Job Creation or Chapter 7 on attempts at work-centred utopia, the relevance to work is not immediately evident and the historical insights are limited. Chapter 4, The New Religion of work, describes the role of Protestantism, Puritans and Quakers in redefining attitudes towards work but seems a little abstract and sometimes tangential to the history of work, though it sets the scene for many of the insights in later chapters.

Chapter 5, The Most Important Pile of Bricks in the World, is excellent, however. In it, Donkin provides a rational and enticing argument for the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Adam Darby’s forge in Ironbridge. In this chapter, the reader is immersed in detailed accounts, laden with reasoned interpretations and fascinating insights:

Darby and his industrial successors were creating the job, as we would recognize it for the next three centuries. The job was changing, almost imperceptibly, from a piece of work that needed doing, to something that began to be perceived as a constant source of employment and income packaged by the parameters of time. (pg. 66)

The British focus continues in Chapter 6, which is equally compelling and which describes the increasingly harsh conditions for workers (including the increasing use of child labours for chimney cleaning and textile work) as industrialisation continued to develop:

Often young sweeps were not washed from one year to the next, but at least they saw the daylight. Those who toiled blindly in the mines often saw little or no daylight for weeks on end…

One eight-year-old girl described how she would sometimes sing if one of the miners had been kind enough to hand her a scrap of candle for some light, for in the dark “I dare not sing then.”

Enclosure of large tracts of land, alongside farm mechanization … allowed significant economies of scale. Rents rose and farm profits increased in this industrialization of the land, but small farmers often lost their independence. Those who were enclosing the land regarding this as a good thing, noting that independence had enabled some of the small formers to work less. They had their small house and a piece of land, and they were comfortable. This comfort was destroyed by enclosure… (pp. 81, 83)

Chapter 11, Modern Times, introduces the effects of Taylorism and Fordism to the work paradigm. The march into the more modern era allows for the convergence of the historical approach of the book with the underlying motivation of the book, Donkin’s questioning of modern work practices.

It is a this point that the narrative develops more spark, fuelled by the integration of Donkin’s personal comments and, perhaps because the historical material is more accessible, slightly more detail in the already-generous historical insights.

About Taylorism, which viewed workers as machines to be optimised, and Fordism, which was about integrating workers with machines and processes, Donkin writes:

…these systems, working in unison, amounted to a ghastly sublimation of the human spirit. (pg. 148)

Donkin’s description of how the Taylorist doctrine spread throughout Europe supports his bold assertion towards the close of that chapter, that:

Taylorism and Fordism transformed factory working so completely that the systems together must be viewed as perhaps the most enduring societal change of the twentieth century, arguably more influential and wider ranging that the competing ideologies of fascism and communism… (pg. 158)

Overall, the book focusses somewhat more on management practice and the development of corporate culture than work itself (Donkin writes, ‘It’s a book about the organization and the management of work’). Nevertheless, it is engaging, well written, and comprehensively researched (during his work as a columnist Donkin met with many of the management luminaries he mentions in the book).

The last few chapters (The Road to Panama, One Life. Live it., Age of the Search Engine) and the postscript (New Century, New Ethic) more than compensate for any of the less-focused chapters and had me constantly copying quotes, following up citations, and questioning my attitudes to work and life.

The main take-away message, if there is one, is that we should question our work ethic and, at the same time, reflect on how to maximise our enjoyment in work and in life.

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This entry was posted on September 20, 2015 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , .
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