10 April 2002


“ The last decade of the twentieth century witnessed an erosion of the concept of the job, that neat package of work that had defined much of the employment of the previous two hundred to three hundred years.
Such changes have led to a belief that in the new century the influence of computers is creating a watershed in the way we work as fundamental as that of the Industrial Revolution and the earlier Agrarian Revolution ten thousand years ago ...”
Richard Donkin

“ Great work is about kindling the inner human spirit that makes us the people that we are. Great work can generate the glow that illuminates the achievements of our ancestors and sparks the achievements of our heirs.
“ Some work has dimmed this glow to nothing more than a flicker in the human soul. If work cannot create the fire that fortifies every human spirit, then that work has lost its meaning and should be discarded...”
Richard Donkin

Blood, Sweat and Tears
Richard Donkin on the Evolution of Work

WORK HAS CHANGED radically in nature over the centuries. Most of these changes have involved revolutionary steps — such as the agrarian and industrial revolutions — and have significantly influenced the way people live and behave. A third revolution is occurring now in the way we work and live, driven this time by new technologies ... and it is having an equally profound influence on our daily lives.

In Blood, Sweat and Tears, Richard Donkin, a leading writer for the Financial Times, presents a captivating history of work, from prehistoric times to the present day. He addresses the impact of slavery, organised religion, the time clock, child labour, unionisation, German and Japanese work styles, women on the factory floor, and current management trends.

This book points out that our work is driven not just by historical trends, but also by a combination of personal factors — our desires always staying one step ahead of our ability to afford them; our psychological need to define ourselves by our work; and an stitched-in work ethic, that continues to drive us long after the religion that spawned it ceased to be relevant.

Donkin challenges this work ethic that is driving more and more people to live lives subsumed by the demands of their employers ... and invites us to ask: why do we do it?

Blood, Sweat and Tears
— the Evolution of Work

by Richard Donkin
(pub 2001 by Texere)
ISBN 1587990768

available from

  • From the book... Something has happened to the way we work, something far more fundamental than changes arising from deregulation and the easing of industrial relations legislation.

    Once there was work, and what we understood as work was what we were paid to be doing. Today there is what we do, and sometimes the benefits to our employer of what we do are unclear. Sometimes it is difficult to think of what we do as work, and sometimes there seems to be so much work to shift that we feel overwhelmed.

    Once we may have left our work behind. Today we take it with us with our mobile phones, our pagers, and our computers. Our working life is woven, warp across weft, into the texture of our domestic existence.

  • We grew up during the last half-century in the certainty that all the great technological advances-robots, computers, software, the silicon chip-would save labour and thus create more leisure time. Today we are no longer so sure.

    Just as motorways created more traffic, technology has created more industries and yet more work. There seems to be an exponential relationship between what can be described loosely as “progress” and work.

    In the first part of the twentieth century this might have seemed a good thing, because the regulated structure and factory-based nature of manufacturing employment dictated that more work equated to more jobs. These jobs were needed for growing populations, boosted by health improvements and as yet unchecked by reliable and widely available contraception.

    But the last decade of the twentieth century witnessed a dismantling of this structure and an erosion of the concept of the job, that neat package of work that had defined much of the employment of the previous two hundred to three hundred years.

    Such changes have led to a belief that in the new century the influence of computers is creating a watershed in the way we work as fundamental as that of the Industrial Revolution and the earlier Agrarian Revolution ten thousand years ago, when people developed the ability to raise crops.

  • The United States is witnessing the phenomenon of the working poor, people whose work provides them with insufficient income on which to live. At the same time there are chief executives of big publicly quoted companies who have seen their salaries and bonuses rise so much that they are earning 150 times more than their lowest paid employees. The redistribution of wealth is beginning to look like “trickle up” rather than “trickle down.”

    The craziness is that some of these highly paid individuals are working such long hours they rarely have the opportunity to step outside their jobs and enjoy a moment's leisure. There used to be parts of our lives we could devote solely to play and leisure but these precious days, once sacrosanct, have been invaded by the new communications of the work place. So often today, play is no longer divorced from work.

  • Charles Handy, the management writer, had predicted a portfolio society where people would live a kind of freelance existence bundling together bits of work rather than holding down a traditional job. This seemed a logical alternative to the job, driven by demands for an individual’s expertise, but as any actor or freelance writer can attest, the portfolio does not help when seeking a mortgage on the strength of it.

    Only those portfolio workers who can demonstrate consistent employment over several years are going to be regarded by lending institutions on equal terms with those who have so-called permanent jobs. The infrastructure supporting the way we work has not caught up with this technological revolution, placing extraordinary pressures on the working lives of those in temporary or short-term positions.

  • Education, like the job, is due for an overhaul. The changing expectations of the job, indeed, will feed through to education providers. But education, like other areas of society, remains in the grip of social drag.

    Teachers will still be needed to teach, but they may no longer stand, autocratically, in front of classrooms dispensing knowledge in syllabus-driven packages. The role will be modeled around the needs of the children.

  • Traditional teaching in schools is command-and-control learning: I speak and you listen; you ask a question and I tell you the answer, or I force you to think with another question and we arrive at the answer together. Just as we’re getting somewhere in French class, the bell goes, and it’s over to History, more facts, a bit of discussion, a smidgen of interpretation, set the homework, books closed, and off you go.

    Command- and-control learning produces boredom and unrest. It closes minds. As I once heard a conference speaker say, children go into school as question marks and leave as periods.

    Real life isn't like this. Left to ourselves we are open to hundreds of influences. A day develops. We may grasp just one of a myriad of colourful threads and we begin to weave, picking up information and under- standing as we go along.

    The more we learn, the more we want to learn. We may need guidance, and one of our guides may well be a teacher, but another may be a parent or a book or a TV program or a movie or a game or a conversation with friends.

  • We may need to look to the Internet generation for a new work ethic. Unlike their Baby Boomer parents reared on a heavy diet of television, a new generation is emerging that immerses itself in the interactivity of the Web.

    Don Tapscott says that these children display different attitudes to their parents, rejecting the idea of conventional employment. “Every kid with a computer is creating his own radio station,” he says. “They want to share the wealth they create. Tell them you'll give them a job and a corner office? I don't think so. Offer them lifelong, full time exclusive employment? I don't think so. This huge demographic change is like a tidal wave. These kids are going to shake the windows and rattle the values of every company...”

  • Slavery, whether enforced by inhuman societies or disguised as a wage-earning job, should not be encouraged by the philosophy of job creation. Job creation is a corruption of wealth creation. If we believe we have become slaves to our jobs we should examine our own value systems and make some adjustments.

    We cannot rely on employers. Most employers have only ever seen workers as costs. Any self-made employer will remember the cost-benefit equation he makes when considering the need to employ someone else. The employer may develop social cares. He may begin to identify with his employees, but, when the chips are down, in times of financial crisis, it is every man and woman for themselves.

  • The most enlightened employers now understand the need for freedom in the workplace and are releasing their workforces from the tyranny of set hours, the strictures of managerial control, and the limitations of the fixed workplace.

    Many traditional businesses are struggling under such conventions. The static business that persists with traditional management-employee relationships and contracts will not flourish. Neither will the static employee. The best of these businesses will linger, of course. They may even merge and linger, continuing the pattern of corporate development among the giants of the late twentieth century; merge and linger like persistent weeds, like slavery itself. But they will have to take their place as unloved giants in a new corporate order, as their nimble offspring take wing and fly.

    The alternative is to devolve their operations so that they resemble a federation of interests bound together by common values and a common purpose. A new generation of multi-skilled mobile employees will accept nothing less.


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