“The History of Labor” and the Future of the Academic Workplace

The history of work: a new history of humanity by Jan Lucassen

Published August 2021. (Yale University Press)

Much is in progress writing on how Covid-19 has changed work. Comparatively little is written about how the pandemic has changed academic work.

Perhaps the reason for the relative lack of analysis of the future of the university as a workplace is that few universities speak publicly about workplace issues. When given the choice, most higher education institutions prefer to talk about the students they train and the research they produce rather than the people (especially staff) they employ.

The reality is that while the university exists to educate students and create knowledge, it is also (or was) a physical workplace. Post-secondary institutions employ nearly 4 million people. How has COVID changed the way these 4 million people will work in the future?

One way to start thinking about the future of academic work is to build as broad a base as possible for understanding the history of any work. It is in this spirit of wanting to think broadly about how higher education might change as a workplace that I read (well, listened to) labor historian Jan Lucassen (22 hours and 12 minutes) Labor history.

This is a book that tries to tell the whole story of the work. Starting with hunter-gatherers, going through the invention and spread of agriculture, surveying the transition to industrial labor and manufacturing, and finally ending with the emergence of knowledge work and the service economy – Labor history is nothing if not complete.

Some of the themes in this global narrative of labor history that can help illuminate the future of academic work post-coronavirus post-2020 include:

Change comes slower than you think.

What stands out from spending 22 hours listening Labor history is how much work has not changed. Specialization and wage labor have long pre-industrial roots. The nature of work has changed dramatically between large-scale transitions from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial economies. However, within these eras, change came more slowly. Work organization patterns appear to be sticky and resistant to external shocks.

For higher education as a workplace, labor history can teach us that our established terms of employment may be more enduring than expected. Rather than broad incremental changes in the way academic work is done, the future may reflect the more gradual and evolutionary changes that seem to characterize broader shifts in work.

The social aspect of work has always been strong.

Labor history spends considerable time describing the parts of the job that go beyond narrow economic factors. For those who work outside the home, work has long retained a social element. Workplaces of all types have been characterized as much by solidarity and camaraderie as by paychecks.

If it is true that the deep basis of work is as much social as it is productive, then it is fair to ask how hybrid academic work might impact the strength of interpersonal collegial bonds. How might the social bonds between those working together at a university be built and maintained as collaboration shifts from person to Zoom? What could universities do to integrate remote employees into the social fabric of campus culture?

We should be skeptical of claims that the future of work will be vastly different from the present.

A final theme relating to academic work that I draw from Labor history is to be skeptical of grand claims of future change. This is partly because the changes in how labor works and the sensations felt by those who do it seem to occur gradually. It is also because the nature of work does not change in a linear or predictable way.

Humans have never been very good at predicting what work will be like in the future, from the jobs that will be done to the time spent doing that job. The historical difficulty of looking to the future should give us a break from overconfident predictions about the direction that scholarly work might take.

Higher education probably has a unique opportunity to rethink how we do our jobs. Invest time in reading Labor history can help us place our efforts to rethink the university as a workplace in its much larger historical context.

What are you reading?

Norma A. Roth