The development of electronic communications over the past few years has made home working a possibility for many of us, the current Covid-19 pandemic has made it compulsory for even more of us. If we set aside the pressures of social isolation, this is a development that could have many benefits.
In the early days of the Industrial Revolution much of Britain’s industry was conducted in people’s homes. In the leading industry of that time, cotton textiles, many workers, such as weavers were home-based. There were many perceived advantages to this arrangement. It meant, among other things that such workers had control over their work routine. It was not uncommon for them to work very long hours over 3 to 4 days to secure enough income for that week, and then devote the rest of their time to other activities, such as gardening or sports, or making cheese and butter if they kept a cow on the local common. At the time people talked about ‘St. Monday, Indicating that they did not work on the first day of the week. To use the cliché: they worked to live, rather than living to work.
This pattern of work had other positive features too. Skilled artisans could control entry to their trade through the apprenticeship system, which was a way of maintaining level of income. Such artisans, like stocking knitters (stockings at this time were long socks, worn by both sexes) took pride in producing good quality fully-fashioned items.
In the first decades of the 19th century increasing demand led merchants supplying raw materials, to attempt to undermine this skilled status and control of entry to the trade of stocking knitter to speed-up production and reduce costs. It was this erosion of status that led to the Luddite Uprising in 1812.
After 1815 factory production increased and, in the process reduced many workers to machine minders unable to take pride in a well-made item, and bound them to the regular hours, 6 days a week, of the industrial workplace. Charles Dickens noted this de-humanising process in his 1854 novel, Hard Times, set in a fictionalised version of Preston, Coketown. There he noted that factory workers were referred to as ‘Hands’, devoid of personality and mere appendages of the machines they tended. Karl Marx coined the term ‘Alienation’ to describe this loss of control experienced by industrial workers. In the 20th Century Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times give a brilliant visual representation of the reduction of the worker to a cog in a machine.
Working at home, then for many restores control over their time. Tasks have to be completed, but such work can be combined with some gardening, cooking, making cheese or butter, should you have access to the appropriate livestock, thinking, or even, if you are keen on ads for Funeral Insurance, watching daytime TV. It is a more humane existence, other activities are not necessarily confined to time-spaces left by work. Such arrangements are not available to all workers, but in a service economy they are available to an increasing number. If nothing else the experience of the pandemic may make people think more deeply about the nature of work and that well-worn entity: the work/life balance.
Dr Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.