The Evolution of Work

CAMBRIDGE – In mid-December, the United Nations will launch the latest of its annual landmark Human Development Reports. This year’s report focuses on the nature of work: how the way we earn a living is being transformed by economic globalization, new technologies, and innovations in social organization. The outlook for developing countries, in particular, is decidedly mixed.

For most people most of the time, work is mostly unpleasant. Historically, doing lots of backbreaking work is how countries have become rich. And being rich is how some people get the chance to do more pleasant work.

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, new technologies in cotton textiles, iron and steel, and transportation delivered steadily rising levels of labor productivity for the first time in history. First in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, and then in Western Europe and North America, men and women flocked from the countryside to towns to satisfy factories’ growing demand for labor.

But, for decades, workers gained few of the benefits of rising productivity. They worked long hours in stifling conditions, lived in overcrowded and unsanitary housing, and experienced little growth in earnings. Some indicators, such as workers’ average height, suggest that standards of living may have even declined for a while.