Work and the Work Ethic

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Peter Shapely

The subject of work and the work ethic in Europe covers an extremely varied number of issues, making generalizations difficult. The term "work" applies to a wide range of human activities. It can describe unpaid activity in the home and with the family or, more readily, a range of paid employment in, for example, manufacturing industries, agricultural work, crafts, or a profession. Each group has numerous subdivisions, such as unskilled, semiskilled, skilled, clerical, management, and entrepreneur. Other divisions are drawn along gender and age lines.

Work is not simply an economic activity. To fully appreciate its significance, work has to be examined and understood as a cultural activity and as a construct of society. Work ethics are a reflection of these social and cultural constructs rather than the economic process. Because it is not simply a physical activity designed to secure material benefits, work and especially ideologies of work have to be seen in the political and social contexts as well as the economic context to be properly understood. This article considers work and work ethics in these contexts and briefly looks at a number of areas. In the preindustrial period the focus was on work in agriculture and, to a lesser extent, the craft industries. The nature of the work performed by men and women was different, though only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the economy of work in Europe perceived as a separate sphere of action for men and women. An inseparable correlation existed between family, home, and work. Industrialization gradually brought a number of changes across Europe. Work slowly moved from the home into factories, and practices and hours of work became more regulated. Industrialization had a significant impact on women and children. Subsequently the state became more involved in providing a regulatory framework that guaranteed hours, pay, and conditions.

Although the European Union brought an increasing sense of homogeneity to work practices through standardizing legislation in western Europe, a singular work experience or set of practices previously did not exist across the Continent. Work was never seen as a sole experience or activity, and work patterns always developed unevenly. This is true of the whole period from the early sixteenth century through the twentieth century. No single model explains the pattern of work in Europe. Even labels, such as the "industrial revolution", are misleading because they suggest that a clear and singular process occurred simultaneously throughout the area and eventually led to the dominance of mechanization and the factory. The process of change was uneven not just between different areas of Europe but also within any particular region. This variety also characterizes attempts to define the work ethic. It is impossible to think about a single monolithic work ethic. During the period a number of ideologies of work were expressed that had existed in Europe since ancient Greece. Central to the work ethic was social status. Society was graded according to each individual's work status. Slaves and poor laborers were at the bottom of the social hierarchy and were employed in low-skilled and hard labor that was generally considered degrading. Above them were the skilled crafts, followed by the arts, including architecture, which all had varying degrees of social value. The large and successful commercial employers achieved greater distinction, but at the top of the social hierarchy in ancient Greece and Rome stood the nobility, whose role was simply that of the warrior.


The work ethic evolved as Christianity gradually spread across Europe. The Christian religion had a significant impact in redefining work ideology. However, Christianity did not simply replace the philosophy of ancient Greece. The disciplinarian approach of Aristotle was integrated into the teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet the status given to certain occupations did begin to change. Influenced by Christian philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, a new hierarchy of occupations developed. Work as a cleric or in other religious careers had the greatest value. Below them were the merchants, shopkeepers, and farmers, followed by artisans and peasants. The church frowned upon those involved in finance, such as money lenders, and in general the populace was suspicious of the profit motive. Work was part of the natural order, and people were born into their positions. All occupations reflected God's will. The medieval work ethic discouraged workers from maximizing their potential income by working longer and harder than necessary. Workers in the medieval period and much of the early modern period had a single notion of what they needed to survive and were not usually encouraged to go any further. Profit and social emulation had limited impact. In the sixteenth century both the Catholic Church and the state promoted meekness, dutifulness, and submissiveness to social superiors. People were taught the virtues of hard work and obedience.

This sense of duty and obedience was reinforced through the structure of early modern rural Europe. Around 90 percent of European workers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were employed in agriculture, and the majority of these belonged to one of the many peasant classes. Peasant workers of Europe had varied experiences and fortunes. In England the yeoman class generally thrived in contrast with the lot of peasants in southern Europe. In parts of Spain and Italy, such as Castile and Naples, the peasant workers struggled under harsh conditions. Landowners and the church kept peasants in their place. The land was poor, and the tax burdens were oppressive. Wide variations existed even among peasant workers in the same country. Of French peasants, the laborers, who were mostly plowmen, had a higher social status than other peasants, though even this narrowly defined class experienced diverse work burdens and levels of prosperity within the country. Their numbers declined throughout the seventeenth century. Some rose into the ranks of the fermiers, the small landowners. Others sank to the level of the manoeuvres, the unskilled workmen, who used the stock, seed, and land of the local landowner in return for half of the produce. Below them were the journaliers, or wage laborers. Many of the French peasants of all ranks were effectively tied to the authority of the seigneurs, the powerful landowners. Some exercised manorial rights, including unpaid labor for a few days each year.

Central Europe exhibited a similar multiformity. In Germany the Meier, or free peasants, enjoyed reasonable levels of prosperity in the north, but conditions in the south led to a decline in peasant success during the seventeenth century. In Prussia the free peasant, or Colmer, often became a large farmer. Yet even within the German states clear differences developed. In East Elbia in the late eighteenth century serfs could be reduced to a state of virtual slavery, whereas in nearby Westphalia dues were much lighter, movement was far less restricted, and serfs could even inherit their land. In some areas the serfs were simply expected to give up a set number of hours every year to work on the landowner's estate or to pay other dues, including matrimonial taxes and death duties. In England the yeomen were viewed as virtuous freeborn laborers who worked their way up the social ladder.

Most of Europe was dominated by serfdom, which continued in Russia and large parts of eastern and central Europe into the nineteenth century. Serfs worked under poor conditions and severe controls on individual freedom. In Russia, tied to the landowner's territory, serfs were subjected to a number of burdens, including oppressive labor dues. Free peasants lived in Russia also, but even they were usually bound to the landlord by heavy debts. Many sank to the level of the bobyli, the landless laborer, or the kabala, who had become so bound to the landowners by debts that they were little more than slaves. The ideology of serf work was associated with oppression, servitude, and duty. Peasants could virtually sell themselves into this state of servitude, which freed them from taxation and army service. In the mid-seventeenth century serfs comprised nine-tenths of the working population in Russia. The powers of the landlord increased, and serfs became a status symbol for the landowners, who often held onto their power over serfs not for profit but because of the prestige attached. The precise working conditions were determined by the contract between the serf or the serf's forebears and the landowner. They worked on the land, often barely at a subsistence level. Large areas of eastern Europe, including Poland and parts of the Habsburg Empire, had a similar form of serfdom. In other areas the restrictions on freedom were far greater. Czech peasants, for example, worked in terrible conditions. Serfs in eastern Europe tended to be worse off than those in the west. Serfs could not emigrate without the lord's consent, and they were often allowed to marry only serfs from the same estate. Inheritance taxes were some of the heaviest burdens. In parts of west Germany the relatives of deceased female serfs were expected to give up her best clothes, and the male heir often had to give his largest head of livestock.

The work ethic in rural early modern Europe maintained an essentially reactionary outlook. Many of the European peasants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were conservative in nature. In their "fixed life world," attitudes toward work were based on customs passed on by each generation. Peasants worked for the basic necessities of life, at self-sufficiency rather than for profit and economic expansion. They did not compete with fellow peasants, and opportunities for social mobility through work achievements were limited. The Catholic Church did not encourage a different view. Peasants feared that, if they became more competitive and profit-oriented, they would attract the avarice of other peasants, tax collectors, and landlords. With few incentives, they were slow to adopt new work techniques. Poor laborers regarded themselves as part of a divine order that positioned the landowners at the top.

Even for those who were not serfs, manual labor in the preindustrial period was often physically demanding. The notion of a golden age of satisfying work existing before industrialization is a myth. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries work was simply toil, whether the task was paid or unpaid. Work ethics for the laborer or skilled worker did not glorify the virtue of such toil. It was simply a means of survival. The agricultural worker plowed the land as part of the household duties in securing a livelihood, or he or she performed the same task as paid labor. In either case the toil was hard and the conditions poor. Many peasants in the seventeenth century enjoyed only a basic subsistence standard of living. Because their holdings were small, they supplemented their incomes by working as wage labor on big farms or by taking up side occupations, such as weaving. Large Dutch farms employed young servants who worked for board and lodging and who became a part of the family, as many as three generations working and living on the same farm. When sons married, they remained on the family farm.

Not all rural areas were dominated by serfdom. By the early sixteenth century parts of Europe were moving away from traditional feudal structures toward commercialization of agriculture. The status of agricultural workers became more fragmented. In England the traditional yeoman class divided into capitalist farmers on the one hand and wage-earning laborers on the other hand. Agrarian capitalism led to the growth of wage labor, and bonded labor slowly disappeared. The process was quicker in some areas, such as England, where like in the Netherlands, a large section of the working population was employed as farm servants, living and working on big estates. In England they were usually young men and women employed for one-year contracts who became a part of the working family. As such they were expected to perform any of the tasks on the estate, whether in the field or in the house. Day laborers were different. Often married, they were usually older than farm servants. They lived independently of the employer and were employed only when work was available. Theirs was an uncertain position, dependent on the seasons, the weather, and their own health.

While agriculture dominated employment in preindustrial Europe, skilled crafts provided the major source of employment in the towns and cities. From the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century skilled craft workers across much of Europe organized into guilds, which had governed some trades since the Middle Ages. Ethically the guilds stressed quality of workmanship, which they guaranteed by controlling entry into the guild and terms of apprentice training. Moreover they protected workers' rights and offered their members and the towns in which they operated a high status. Independent handicraft production was regulated. In many European countries statutes reinforced the rights of artisans to establish wages, rates, and the terms of apprenticeships. Giving artisans an organizational structure, guilds allowed them to wield collective power. Many new guilds originated from older medieval craft associations. They had strict rules and regulations and were highly ritualistic. The size and nature of their memberships differed enormously. Some were wealthy merchants, others were humble craftspeople. Modest tailors, for example, often delivered goods to order, rarely had stock on hand, and usually relied on the client to supply the cloth. Brewers, on the other hand, were often wealthier, owning larger properties and employing workers.

The artisan usually was an independent craftsperson who made and sold a particular product themselves. Some artisans employed one or two journeymen. The term also had wider applications, referring to those who served a lengthy apprenticeship to become skilled in a particular craft. Their apprenticeship and skill gave them the right to exercise work in that particular trade. Most artisans were in reality employed journeymen. They were also socially mobile, and many improved their ranks over a period of time. Some had lower status and wages than others. Indeed, some employed journeymen earned more than independent artisans such as garret masters. Even most skilled artisans were in reality wage earners. In Britain the artisans' skills were seen as male property, a central feature of their ethics that gave them a sense of dignity, status, and respect. They demanded respect from employers and exercised superiority over unskilled laborers. Employers did not interfere with artisans at the workplace and did not expect them to keep fixed hours. Tradespeople controlled knowledge, skills, and practices, restricting entry to their trades. Their status depended upon the possession of proper equipment, tools of the trade, and clothing traditionally associated with their trade. Myths were central to guild ceremonies.

Myths and rituals became more pronounced in the eighteenth century in reaction to increased pressures. Guilds often defended the interests of their members. The Dutch weavers of the late seventeenth century organized in opposition to attempts by local merchants to reduce pay by hiring local and German peasants as cheap labor. The skilled craft workers, artisans, and journeymen attempted to safeguard their positions, but during the eighteenth century the regulations and powers of the guilds diminished. From the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century French artisans, such as tailors, hatters, and cutlers, organized groups known as the compagnonnages, or guilds. The French compagnonnages were informal groups shrouded in ritual and mystery whose practices varied according to trade and area. The aura of mystery and myth was important. Some claimed that their rituals actually dated back to the building of Solomon's Temple. Creating a complex system of distinctions, the rituals underpinned hierarchies and the status of graded workers. The compagnonnages flourished in the late eighteenth century, due partly to the growth of urban areas and partly to the erosion of the legal rights enjoyed by some journeymen. Those legal provisions had distinguished them from other journeymen, and rituals replaced the legal protection. German workers organized, the Bruderschaften with their own ceremonies.

Artisans found their positions increasingly under threat of depreciating in the nineteenth century. In England artisans defended their trade skills, considered their property, against increased mechanization, cheap labor, the repeal of supportive legislation, and the Combination Laws, which were acts passed by Parliament in 1799 and 1800, to prevent formation of trade unions. Their work ethic conflicted with the emerging classic liberal philosophy. Exponents of political economy, including Adam Smith, condemned practices such as apprenticeships, claiming they were too restrictive and a barrier to economic freedom. Artisans, regarding those criticisms as attacks on their legal property established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were forced to defend themselves against capitalists and the unskilled labor used to produce cheap goods. The eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century was a period of flux for skilled workers with increasing division of labor and differentiation of skills. On one hand skilled artisans were still needed by capitalists, so the workers retained considerable power. Facing frequent strike activity, insubordination, and resistance, capitalists found it difficult to impose regular working habits. On the other hand skilled workers were increasingly separated from ownership of the materials with which they worked and sale of the finished products. New machinery increased productivity, and some machines, such as knitting frames, required less skill. Capitalists produced inexpensive though inferior goods by employing cheap labor.

Artisans attempted to stem the tide of industrialization in different ways. In the late eighteenth century they became increasingly exclusive, prohibiting girls from apprenticeships. The ideology of the skilled artisan maintained a predominantly male hierarchy. Women were barred from many trades in an attempt to protect those trades from cheap labor. Women were even excluded from trade organizations, such as that of hatmaking, in which they were members during the early eighteenth century. Strikes by hatmakers and tailors in the early nineteenth century were aimed at keeping women out of the occupation. While undermining the position of women in the labor market, exclusion ironically led to their becoming a larger body of unskilled labor and further increased the threat to artisans.


Working women experienced lower status during the early modern period, though the clear demarcations that evolved in the nineteenth century did not exist. Women married to independent laborers found it difficult to secure regular employment outside the household, and those who did usually combined agricultural work with washing and cooking for field laborers. Work, paid and unpaid, in much of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe was organized around the household as the central unit rather than around individuals. For peasants the idea of separate work and domestic spheres lacked any real meaning. Working in the field or working in the kitchen were complementary parts of the same strategy. Marriage was an economic partnership, and women worked alongside their husbands on farms and in workshops. Among the poor, wives usually worked as spinners for the same people who employed their husbands as weavers.

Nevertheless, jobs were divided between men and women. Work ethics connected tasks concerned with the home and garden with the female domain. However, the edges were blurred. In seventeenth-century France, for example, women made the dough, but men kneaded it and heated the oven. Men tended sheep, but either women or men tended cows. The division of work in peasant households varied enormously across Europe. Employment for women varied according to the industry and the area. Women were employed in relatively high-status occupations in the medieval period, but this was not always the case in Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition, although they worked in a range of trades, their actual roles were usually restricted. Work ethics subordinated their roles to men. Women dominated certain trades, such as silk, but their guilds lacked the formal status and power of men's guilds in Europe. Apprenticeships were not the same for men and women, involving lower skills and less training for women.


The teachings of the church and the patriarchal structure of society reinforced perceptions of women and work. The role of the church was important in legitimizing the premodern work ethic; however, it never established across Europe a universal value system based on its ideology. The growth of commercial activity in northern Europe from the early sixteenth century conflicted with the Catholic ideal. Max Weber expounded the notion of the Protestant work ethic in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. While Weber's theory has been criticized as overgeneralized and inconclusive, it does highlight important developments in perceptions of work and the work ethic. Weber focused on the fact that the Reformation coincided with economic growth in northern Europe. Loosening the bonds of the Catholic Church allowed greater individual freedom, which was expressed in work. Profit became increasingly acceptable. Commercial growth was characterized by a reinvestment of profits into new business ventures rather than simply achievement of prestige or security. Entrepreneurial activity, the willingness to take risks in business deals, increased markedly, and a new approach to work and the acquisition of wealth evolved. Prudence, sobriety, maximum use of time, and the desire to achieve through individual merit, moral values closely associated with Calvinism, distinguished the emerging entrepreneurial class. Yet this development was not just about the wealthy; it was associated with work at all levels of the social spectrum. The key was that workers performed to the very best of their abilities, irrespective of the nature of the job.

Weber did not claim that the Protestant work ethic actually caused capitalist growth, but he demonstrated that the values derived from Protestantism clearly favored the establishment and expansion of a capitalist economy. A different cultural approach to work emerged in which the entrepreneur was increasingly successful. Work ethics now stressed the role of the individual working for deferred gratification or concentrating on accumulating virtue and money instead of immediate pleasures. The workers' moral obligations were to perform all tasks to the best of their abilities no matter how small or menial the work, to take orders from an employer willingly, and to value work as a source of meaning and worth for each individual. These values, an oversimplification of the evolving work ethic, did not come entirely from the growth of Protestantism. The transition from the old and largely feudal order to a capitalist system cannot be pinpointed to any particular period. It is impossible to say exactly when one set of relations took over from the other.

However, these values did permeate parts of European culture, beginning in the sixteenth century. The Reformation ultimately if unintentionally encouraged a more secular mentality, which encouraged greater acceptance of the entrepreneur and work discipline. The new work ethic was especially successful in northern Europe, where the Reformation was most influential. In western Europe the Protestant work ethic became manifested in a number of ways, including the nineteenth century "gospel of work" and the notions expressed by Samuel Smiles's best-seller Self-Help (1859). Smiles's ideas were not original. His book reiterated the values of hard work, diligence, thrift, sobriety, and deferred gratification in terms of individual moral worth, though with greater emphasis on social mobility as a result. The Protestant work ethic facilitated industrialization, though it was not a major factor in its development. Similar thoughts about work emerged in traditionally Catholic regions, such as France, as the work ethic became middle class more than Protestant. The middle classes used work beliefs to criticize aristocrats, whom they considered idle and unproductive. Deep class identity was involved, as many middle-class people did indeed work very hard.

Industrialization itself had a marked impact on the work ethic, which was affected by the growth of capitalist and market values. Beginning in the late eighteenth century classic liberal economists and philosophers, such as Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, stressed the value of limited government interference, especially in economic affairs. They emphasized the role of the individual and self-interest. If individuals were prepared to work hard, they should reap the benefits of their energy and commitment. Those who did not choose to work hard should be left to struggle. Workers should be free to move between jobs according to their own interests and no longer be tied to the land like serfs and many peasant groups. Wages should be set according to the market. Old seigneurial rights were an unjust barrier to natural rights and freedom. Entrepreneurs should be able to operate largely unfettered. Merchants became the eighteenth-century risk takers, forming the driving force behind economic growth and British industrialization. Individuals like Richard Arkwright gradually moved production from the home to the factory.

While many capitalists embraced the classic liberal ideology, it was not universally accepted. The utilitarian view was criticized throughout the nineteenth century both by conservatives, such as Thomas Carlyle, and by the emerging socialists, such as Karl Marx. Marx believed that waged work was essentially a form of capitalist oppression. For him the work ethic was not about profit for the individual but social justice and equality for all workers. Factory owners had widely varied attitudes toward work and their employees. German employers were authoritarian, while the British were paternalistic. The German work ethic viewed labor in terms of time, the British in terms of products. German workers in the woolen industry were paid according to the number of shuttle movements completed in a given time period. British weavers were paid according to the number of threads actually woven. These methods of payment reflected the different cultural assumptions about work resulting from the different conceptions of work. Some nineteenth-century large employers, like Hugh Mason, Titus Salt, and the Cadbury family, built large settlements for their workers to provide homes, libraries, schools, and churches and to promote their own value systems. Still, this group of factory owners formed a minority in Britain. Many employers simply did not have the resources to build such facilities, and others did not share the philosophy. Nevertheless, it was a means of exerting authority outside the factory and was a result of their perception of work as a commodity. German employers in general had a more tyrannical reputation inside the factory. Partly in response to similar employer attitudes across Europe, the working classes formed labor organizations to protect their interests in the face of the capitalist market. In the industrial society workers were defined increasingly along class lines. As the factory became the principal mode of production, modern ideas about class emerged. In Marx's notion of class, workers shared a sense of consciousness based on their relationship to the means of production.

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany the work ethic was also rooted in a sense of dignity and purpose in daily work. Germans, for many of whom work was a serious vocation for life, believed they possessed an attitude toward work that was superior to that of workers in southern Europe. Some nineteenth-century observers, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Marx, worried about the decline of traditional skills that resulted from industrialization and the rise of mundane jobs. A movement grew to develop a greater sense of "joy in work." By the end of the nineteenth century some felt that work should be an enriching experience. Wilhelm von Riehl conducted one of the most comprehensive studies into what he believed was the German work ethic. His theory, based on observations of the Protestant urban middle classes, describes an intrinsic value attached to the very experience of working. Work was exalted for its benefits to the community, no matter how mundane, rather than for materialistic reasons. All work serviced the needs of the people. To give workers a stake in the system, capitalists tried to promote a positive attitude and reduce any sense of alienation by offering training for a trade. Industrialists established technical training schools to promote industrial education. However, others saw work as a duty and a burden that should be eased by better pay and conditions. Their ideal was not joy in work but joy after work, and they longed for liberation from work rather than through it.


Social historians have tried to determine what work ethic common laborers maintained in the face of industrialization and the middle-class praise for hard work. Some clearly bought into the idea of work as dignity and even tried to increase their efforts to please employers or to maximize personal gain and advancement. But more workers probably maintained what British laborers called a "lump o' labor" concept. Work was fine, but it should not be frenzied or intensified. A given amount of pay merited a set amount of work. Obviously, given mechanization, this idea was not easily defended, but it entered into considerable labor protest and described some aspects of work in the less-technical sectors, like construction work. When customary work ideas could not be defended, new concepts replaced them, most notably the notion of instrumentalism. In instrumentalism workers admitted they could not defend traditional practices, but they insisted on higher pay in return for concessions so work would be an "instrument" for a better life off the job.

Industrialization in the nineteenth century brought significant changes to work practices, but it was not a universal process. In England the course of industrialization focused on parts of the northwest, West Yorkshire, and small areas of the Midlands and northeast. In Russia serfdom was not abolished until 1861, and even then peasants remained tied to the land through oppressive dues. Large areas of southern and eastern Europe remained untouched into the twentieth century. Those areas affected by industrialization experienced gradual changes in work patterns. Work inside the factory demanded greater discipline, which had a marked impact on the ideology of work. Work habits were restructured so that production was determined by mechanized production rather than by nature. Industrial society demanded the maximum use of time, characterized by systems of bells, timekeepers, time sheets, and clocking in. Work time was distinguished from home time. The emerging emphasis on time discipline was underlined by the decline of St. Monday. Rural workers often avoided work on Monday, called "holy Monday" in France, especially if they had spent the previous day in the local inn. However, industrialization demanded more commitment, and industrialists suppressed St. Monday after the late eighteenth century.

The shift from task-based to product-based notions of time discipline happened by degrees. Traditional practices continued in mining and handicraft work into the nineteenth century. In spite of capitalists' efforts to control time, British workers were renowned for their irregular work habits. Their work ethic was product-based. Many worked for short bursts followed by periods of inactivity. Work experiences also crossed a wide range. Domestic work was not regulated by the clock, and unpaid voluntary work was similarly unconstrained by notions of time. Because industrialization was not uniform in either time or place, craft techniques prospered across Europe alongside factories that employed technology. Cyclical unemployment brought uncertain time disciplines into occupations such as dock work, and periods of high demand had an impact on the time and structure of work in some industries. The seasons continued to dominate work and time practices in agriculture. Capitalists and managers did not always follow a clock-based work structure, even in manufacturing industries. Single industries, such as ceramics in Staffordshire, England, had a variety of work-time practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to different company sizes, different techniques, and different demands.


Despite the variety in work practices, strict regulation of the workplace increasingly became a marked feature of manufacturing during the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century work dominated people's lives, and most workers had little leisure time. As this started to change in western Europe, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed a mixture of approaches. The expansion of communism challenged capitalist systems. Work in the Soviet Union was transformed under Joseph Stalin's Five-Year Plans and the development of a controlled economy. The industrial workforce doubled to 6 million people by the end of 1932. Peasants moved in large numbers into coal, iron, and steel production in areas like the Ukraine. Work ethics were based on service to the state. The government handed down planned targets, putting enormous pressure on managers to reach hard goals. Collectivization forced many out of the rural areas into the emerging industrial regions, and "shock work" (intensive additional work) was introduced to improve productivity. Younger workers encouraged shock work, but older skilled workers, who had been in industry prior to the Five-Year Plans, often resisted it. The skilled workers even abused the shock workers, including beatings and murders. Older workers also resisted new practices and attempts to cut rates of pay. The government introduced the continuous working week in 1932, and workers faced penalties if they left their jobs without permission. Managerial authority was asserted with great vigor. These measures were intended to improve productivity as demanded by the state. Beginning in the mid-1930s the state gave increasing publicity and heroic status to dedicated workers, such as the coal miner Aleksey Grigoriyevich Stakhanov, who broke productivity records. In Germany the Nazi government also promoted the virtues of work, and German work ethics centered on the idea of service to the race through the state. Building on the joy through work ideal of the late nineteenth century, the Nazis embarked on a number of propaganda crusades, such as their "beauty of labor" campaign. Joy would be the reward of serving the state.

In the second half of the twentieth century work practices and the hours of work gradually improved across most of Europe, especially in the west. Regulation of time became an asset of the labor movement. Vacation time increased, and a leisure ethic joined the beliefs about work. Overtime was a feature of the time-disciplined work environment, and in postwar Europe full employment and the growth of trade union power led to greater regulation of overtime. Workers demanded rates increase by 50 percent or even 100 percent for working outside the agreed hours. Unions negotiated a series of other strict conditions, including demarcation lines. However, with the decline in manufacturing and union power in the early 1980s, such regulations and agreements faced increasing pressures.

Along with the changes in work structures and practices, the numbers employed in certain sectors shifted significantly. Several classifications gradually replaced the artisan. At the bottom were unskilled laborers, many employed in casual or seasonal work, such as dock workers. For most of the nineteenth century they were the poorest workers, and they were the least organized. In contrast, skilled workers in manufacturing tended to be organized in trade unions. Some historians believe that skilled workers formed an aristocracy of labor. They kept themselves aloof from unskilled workers, and like artisans before them, they jealously guarded their position in the workplace. Above them stood a wide range of middle-class occupations. Besides the increase in those employed in business and manufacturing, the number of people employed as clerks and in other professions grew notably. The older professional groups, such as lawyers and doctors, multiplied, as did private sector professionals, such as managers and accountants. Throughout the twentieth century the trend toward professions continued across western Europe. Indeed the number employed in manufacturing declined in much of Europe, especially in the late twentieth century. At the same time more workers joined service industries, such as tourism.


Despite the shifting pattern of employment, work ethics and the underlying changes in work practices and structures from the preindustrial period remained. One of the most fundamental changes was the demise of the family unit as the central work unit. From the mid-eighteenth century the relocation of the workplace away from the family home and into workshops and factories meant a gradual separation of spheres between the economic and the social and between the private and the public. As tasks slowly became divided, women were increasingly associated with the domestic sphere, while men were identified with labor in the workplace. These divisions became a central feature in the ideology of work. The concept of gaining all of the means to live through paid labor emerged in the nineteenth century. Most European households did not rely on income through paid labor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the late eighteenth century most households depended on a variety of work strategies to secure their livelihoods. A single, full-time regular job providing the sole source of income was the exception rather than the norm.

Until the nineteenth century women were likely to be the main money earners because they sold produce at markets or produced textile goods in the home. In the nineteenth century this changed with the emergence of the family wage. Male workers received substantially higher wages than women. Work ethics placed the male worker as the chief earner, the family breadwinner, and his wage was supposed to support all members of the family. Trade unions tried to keep women out of skilled work to keep wages higher. Middle-class morality also decided that the new, heavy machinery was unsuitable for women. Work ethics stressed that physically demanding labor belonged exclusively to men. Traditionally coal miners worked in family units, including wives and children, but this practice ended in England with the 1842 Mines Regulation Act. Until the eighteenth century women were apprenticed in some trades and were employed in heavy labor, but this changed in the late eighteenth century. Women married to upwardly mobile men entered the middle classes and became more idle, while the wives of skilled journeymen lost much of their independence and often entered domestic service.

Much historiographical debate has concerned the impact of industrialization on work opportunities for women. Certainly women remained vital in the workplace. Women and children accounted for substantial numbers of employees in textiles in the late eighteenth century. Lace making was almost exclusively female, and cotton industries employed more women than men. These textile industries were central to the economic explosion in Britain. Women were also significantly involved in the metal industries, such as nail making and hardware manufacturing. In the mid-eighteenth century merchants relied on the cheap and unregulated labor of women. The number of women employed by merchants grew, but it remained low-status work. With mechanization women moved into new industries, but those positions, too, were low-skill, low-wage work. The first developments in new technology were designed for home situations. The spinning jenny, for example, was introduced into domestic production in the late eighteenth century, and the move into factories run by merchant manufacturers followed. That relocation meant that women lost control over their own labor.

However, increased mechanization did not cause a dramatic transition in women's working lives, though it is impossible to make generalizations. On one level it restricted opportunities for women. Certainly as industrialization developed in the nineteenth century opportunities for women in industry declined. The range of available apprenticeships decreased, and less than half of the apprenticeships available to men in nineteenth-century Britain were also available to women. Opportunities for women concentrated in domestic service and textiles, and the status attached to "women's work" was lower than that of "men's work." On another level, industrialization took women out of the home, providing them with a form of liberation from the home. Yet this was not necessarily a positive development. In many ways this transition from the home to the factory led to more rigid subordination of women in the male-governed industrial system.

Women were subservient even in occupations numerically dominated by women. As mechanization in the British cotton industry grew, women accepted a variety of occupations in the mills. Initially in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries they occupied auxiliary positions, including often the most insecure positions. They were paid poor wages, often only half those of men. With the development of the power loom women came to occupy the main positions, such as spinning. Women's wages increased in the mid-Victorian period, in some instances equaling the rates enjoyed by men. However, men held most supervisory and management positions. The majority of women did not enjoy wage equality with men. This was underlined in the sweated labor workshops, where many women were employed. Work there was characterized by low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions. In the late nineteenth century sweatshops attracted attention in Britain, where Parliament conducted investigations between 1888 and 1890. Sweatshops were concentrated in the poorest urban districts, such as the East End of London, and they often employed women, children, paupers, and immigrants. Employers often issued outwork, which made it virtually impossible for workers to organize unions or for factory inspectors to investigate their practices. This work was also characterized by subdivision of labor and deskilling, which assured low wages and poor conditions.

Children worked in miserable conditions across much of nineteenth-century Europe. Their smaller physical frames suited them for various jobs in which poor health, mutilation, and deaths were not uncommon. Partly in response to increasing concerns about children's positions, many European nations introduced work legislation. Work ethics eventually viewed children as unsuitable for employment. In the nineteenth century Britain passed numerous acts to provide an extensive protective framework for children. Factory acts in the early Victorian period established hours and conditions of work in textiles and mines. Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, and other leading reformers continued the campaign into the mid-nineteenth century, when legislation addressed a number of other industries. Significantly the 1870 Education Act demanded that all children under ten years of age should attend school full-time. Most legislation was permissive or at least difficult to enforce, but it established important precedents that were improved during the twentieth century. Separating children from work complicated judgments about the nature and utility of childhood.

New work systems also brought attention to older workers, who increasingly were considered less competent to deal with the stresses and learning components of modern labor. Many older workers were demoted or laid off. Pension movements emerged to offer some protection for them, and formal retirement systems took effect during and after the Great Depression. Ability to work and removal from work complicated appraisals of old age by the elderly and by society at large.

Throughout the twentieth century European governments continued to pass laws to protect workers. Women gained rights in the workplace in the second half of the twentieth century. The communist states provided greater equality for women at work than did most other European nations, but beginning in the 1960s the western European democracies passed legislation promoting and supporting women's rights. Most European countries recognized the need to provide maternity leave, preschool child care, and anti-discriminatory legislation. Women entered most traditionally male-dominated work spheres, though in smaller numbers and with lower pay than their male coworkers.


Certainly generalizations about the impact of any single work ethic in terms of time or place would be naive. Diverse ethics permeated societies across Europe at different periods and among different classes, and no single ethic dominated. Ethics, ideologies, or meanings developed from social and ideological forces, and precise conditions varied across Europe. Some areas remained untouched after the medieval period, while others, such as Britain, underwent huge changes. Geographical differences and cultural diversity created multiple peasant experiences. No single, all-embracing time-work discipline existed. Ethics centered on freedom or on oppression. They were determined by Catholic and Protestant philosophies, by social structures and cultural traditions, by political and economic ideologies, and by shifting technology. Even in the nineteenth century traditional work values did not disappear. The clock, seasons, life courses, family demands, and mechanization impacted different areas in different periods, underlining the assortment of European work ethics and experiences. Agricultural workers in the early modern period included the oppressed serfs of eastern Europe, the more liberated peasants of Germany, and the free yeoman of Britain. Farm workers in northern and western Europe were not tied by seigneurial dues, but they were subjected to technological changes at a much earlier date than the serfs of Russia, who effectively worked under the same conditions from the medieval period into the twentieth century.

Artisans also had dissmilar experiences and practices. Many were employed as journeymen; some were self-employed and worked from their homes; and a few enjoyed wealth and status, owning large properties and employing other skilled and unskilled workers. Industrialization threatened many groups of artisans; however, its impact on work depended upon the time and place. Workers who moved into the factories felt its effect on work ethics and practices, including stricter discipline and regulations that affected hours, pay, and conditions. The capitalists moved from their merchant houses, where they organized the home-based workers, into the rigid factory system, where they directly employed workers. Yet the factory did not invade all forms of work. Many areas of Europe remained predominantly agricultural. Stalin's Five-Year Plans initiated the shift of Russian workers from rural areas into towns and factories in the twentieth century. Large areas of southern Italy and Castile in Spain remained untouched by modernization.

Industrialization stimulated mixed fortunes for women. Some were liberated from their homes but were still employed and supervised by men. Others, such as middle-class women, had reduced work opportunities. Work ethics subordinated women for most of the period from the Renaissance to the late twentieth century. Industrialization's impact on women continued to attract debate among historians and attention as a subject of studies of work in Europe. Research has continued regarding technological change, the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, and the growth of the service sector. Those challenges have endured with the growing impact of the European Union and globalization of work.

See alsoSerfdom: Western Europe; Serfdom: Eastern Europe; Farm Families and Labor Systems (volume 2);Social Class (volume 3);Patriarchy; Gender and Work (in this volume);Protestantism (volume 5).


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