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How Will the Pandemic Shape the Future of Work?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a huge demand-and-supply shock to the global economy. But while businesses face the kind of uncertainty that hasn’t been seen since the industrial revolution, there may be things we can learn from pre-industrial business and employers that will help lead us out of the difficult times we find ourselves in.  

Aside from the periods of war and the oil crises, from the late-19th century onwards developed economies experienced a huge decline in output volatility, especially between the early 1980s and 2007. Supply and demand of goods and services became more certain and continuous, and fluctuated less. In effect, there was a rise in certainty. 

This continuity of supply and demand, experienced as predominance of just-in-time supply chains and a global market for sourcing intermediate goods, supported investment and stable economic growth. Alongside this growth came high employment (albeit with lower than expected wage growth). The pandemic has undermined those trends, but, from a historical perspective, uncertainty of supply and demand is nothing new. Such volatility was a key characteristic of all pre-modern economies before industrialisation. In those economies, the labour market was vastly different from the one we have known in recent decades.  

It is only since the industrial revolution, or the mass mechanisation of production, that the continuous production of anything has been possible. Before the mid-19th century, goods were produced in batch or custom orders in small workshops, or through a network of outworkers. It’s possible to conceive the pre-industrial economy as entirely project based.

In a world where seasonality, blockades, severe weather, famine, plague and poor credit or financial crises hindered production and often stopped work, it made no sense to pay people for time that might not be productively used. Pre-industrial employers used more varied contracts than today, where a small number of covetable annual contracts paid a reliable but very low wage, and work by the day was paid at a premium but was volatile, seasonal and insecure. 

So, the current concept of a ‘job’ is a relatively new phenomenon. What we call a job today was not the way most people were employed. The majority of pre-industrial workers were not paid for their time – but for what they produced. 

Read entire article at Bartlett Annual Review