Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”

- John Green

Looking back at the history of work provides us an opportunity to understand how work as we know it today transformed over the years. With the pandemic disrupting work norms, we now have an opportunity to redesign old practices and reimagine other aspects. Such a task is complex. As we journey through the past, we can see the impact of work on social, technological, and environmental systems. Keeping this in mind, it may guide us in better understanding present complex challenges, to create a future of work that places values at its core.

Looking at origin stories allow us to reflect on how some of the older practices, rituals, and assumptions influence how we design our futures. The nature of work plays a significant role in defining a civilization, its culture, the relationships of the worker with themselves, their workplace, their employer and their society.

Who had the power to make prominent decisions that influenced work? Who were the beneficiaries of those decisions? How did different technologies get introduced into work? What values did they embody and what was their impact on various systems?

Journeying Into The History Of Work


Hunters & Gatherers





Click to expand


This period refers to a time where majority of humanity lived within groups that obtained their food from hunting and gathering.

  • Work: All activities were influenced by sustenance. Tasks involved the hunting and gathering of food and water, developing required tools, making clothing from animal skins and ensuring the security of the group.

  • Workforce: Organisation of the workforce was based on strengths and abilities to contribute to work, predominantly based on age and sex. Kinship relationships determined the leader who provided guidance in managing the group. There was no concept of leisure exclusive to some members. When excess food supplies existed, the workforce could afford to specialise in other tasks like that of improving their tools.

  • Workplace: It was determined by what the land offered which often led to nomadic lifestyles dependent on the availability of resources. The use of fire allowed for the expansion of the workplace as groups had the option to migrate towards cooler climates.

  • Social: Relationships rested on kinship ties, each person fulfilled duties towards the tribe and in turn enjoyed certain rights. Personal feuds did arise, but cooperative kinship societies triumphed, an essential requirement for survival in harsh conditions.


Early Agriculture






​Early agriculture refers to a time where humans began to explore the opportunities of domestication of plants and animals.​

  • Work: Activities revolved around the domestication of plants and animals. With limited knowledge about the crops and with crop yields being impacted by floods and droughts, productivity was low despite hard work. Work involved trial and error methods to improve on existing knowledge. Work was done to meet the needs of the family and hence there was no incentive to produce surplus. Work was not viewed as an additional burden to make a living but more as an extension of family and community life. 

  • Workforce: Men, women and children shared tasks based on capabilities. As the scale was small, labour was sporadic and diversified based on the requirement of tasks to produce sufficient output but not surplus. This also allowed for specialists (makers of tools and weapons) to develop on a part time basis.

  • Workplace: The fertility of land and the availability of water determined the settlement of people. There was a new attachment to place that developed as agriculture increased permanency in settlements.

  • Social: The permanence of settlements developed into village communities in which each family had equal access to the natural resources. This social homogeneity prevented surplus in one home and starvation in the next. The shift away from nomadic lifestyles allowed for the accumulation of more artefacts which in turn increased the need to learn new skills to make desired artefacts to adorn their homes.


Hydraulic Agriculture






Hydraulic agriculture refers to the use of large-scale irrigation facilities and a movement away from rainfall dependant farming.

  • Work: The setting up of infrastructure was complex. It required work to be done in a structured, orderly and synchronised manner. Such requirements reduced the flexibility available to workers as they were required to synchronise their schedules. The planned nature of work reduced the autonomy available to each individual.

  • Workforce: Channelling of water on a large scale required masses of labour to work together which in turn made the division of labour essential. Majority of the workforce were attracted to such work due to material gains. However, some groups resisted, even at the cost of famine. They did not want to abandon their old ways as the new gains came at a cost of political, economic, and cultural submission.

  • Workplace: The workplace expanded. Dry lands with fertile soil became new zones to be cultivated. It allowed for the connection of regions long separated by dry lands and led to the formation of densely populated regions. The workplaces not only required preparatory infrastructure to allow for irrigation but also protective infrastructure as safeguards to flooding.

  • Social: Different patterns of social organisation and control were required for such irrigation projects and allowed for the growth of strong social and political structures. The workforce needed to subordinate themselves to a directing authority outside of their kin. These structures marked the end of social and economic ties in communities. Clear boundaries began to form between economic and social relationships


Slave Societies






Conditions in which human beings were owned by another. Slaves did not have many rights and always had less rights than free persons. In classical Athens, from the 5th through to the 3rd century slaves constituted about a third of the population.

  • Work: Majority of slave work was associated with hard physical labour or prostitution. They had no right to choose the nature of work and hence had no autonomy with respect to work.

  • Workforce: As there was a low internal supply of labour, majority of the workforce consisted of slaves. There was no dignity shown to the workers as they were treated as a commodity traded amongst the elite. With slaves doing all the work, the concept of leisure amongst the elites was introduced. Division of labour was evident and both horizontal and vertical specialisation was seen.

  • Workplace: With the specialisation of labour, the workplace varied based on the nature of work. For a trader, the marketplace was his base whereas for a miner the dingy mine was his workplace.

  • Social: Slaves were marginalised in society and the treatment meted out to them across geographies was heinous. They were treated as non-citizens and hence did not have the same rights enjoyed by peasants who were working citizens. Distinct social classes formed that only intensified as children of slaves by default were also slaves. Amongst the powerful, the accumulation of wealth and power seemed to be justified even at the cost of human dignity and rights.


The Black Death






For many have certainly

Heard it commonly said

How in one thousand three hundred and forty-nine

Out of one hundred there remained but nine

Thus it happened for lack of people

Many a splendid farm was left untilled

No one plowed the fields

Bound the cereals and took in the grapes

Some gave triple salary

But not for one denier was twenty (enough)

Since so many were dead…

  - Guillaume de Machaut

The black death refers to the bubonic plague, a pandemic causing a huge number of deaths across the world. This event had a huge impact on social and economic systems. Many historians believe the fates of premodern economies were shaped by significant events like epidemic disease.

  • Work: The was a change in the way work was carried out. Serfdom began to decline and there was a switch to wage labour. In agricultural towns, there was a shift in labour-intensive agriculture to sheep rearing. With labour being in high demand, workers enjoyed a greater freedom to select the type of work they wanted to perform.

  • Workforce: With a decrease in the population due to a high number of deaths, the labour to land ratio shifted. Labour being a scarce resource had immense bargaining power. The workforce in the long run enjoyed a higher standard of living which can be translated to an improved diet and a demand for high income elasticity goods.

  • Workplace: The strong demand for labour encouraged migration and expanded the workplace options. The workers chose to move to regions where they could get the best perks in spite of high mobility costs. The agricultural workplace contracted as people thronged to high-mortality cities.

  • Social: With labour enjoying better bargaining power and with a decline of the feudal system, there was a decrease in economic inequality during the 14th and 15th centuries. With workers having higher purchasing power, mass affluence increased which in turn challenged status barriers. To ensure the elites still maintained their status, laws were made restricting dress based on social status (e.g., fur was restricted only to the nobility). The decline of feudalism led landlords to consolidate holdings and sowed the seeds for agricultural capitalism . With masses enjoying more power, there was a weakening of political powers and religious institutions.


How did different regions adapt to required changes?


The Renaissance






The renaissance, also referred to as the rebirth refers to a period In Europe which promoted philosophy, literature, and art. During this era, global explorations began that found new trade routes and expanded commerce. Some of the greatest artists, thinkers, scientists, and authors flourished during this period.

  • Work: The nature of work was different based on social classes. For artists, philosophers, and scientists, work flourished during the renaissance and it took on a different meaning. The work was not done purely for economic reasons but to fulfil a purpose. Work was looked at as adding meaning to one's life. For peasants, they continued to enjoy the benefits of wage labour and the rights and freedoms that arose with the death of the feudal system. The other type of work included entrepreneurship which was funded by a growing financial services industry and guild employment, specially in the manufacture of woollen clothing.

  • Workforce: Artists had significant bargaining power and sought bids from the elite. The bidding was very different from that of slaves. The artists were not commodified, they had the freedom to choose the type of work and freedom to choose their employer. With relation to majority of the peasants, serfdom continued to decline, and wage labour was the new norm. While they did enjoy greater rights than previous periods, they still lived an impoverished lifestyle as compared to the merchants and nobility. The merchants and tradesman with new options for trade had the potential to accumulate masses of wealth and even marry into the noble class.

  • Workplace: Famous artists were raised to nobility and removed from the control of guilds. For merchants and entrepreneurs, with the growth of international trade, their workplaces expanded. For peasants, their working conditions began to improve with their improved bargaining power.

  • Social: A cultural movement called humanism gained momentum in Italy, humans viewed themselves at the centre of their own universe. People embraced human achievements in education, classical arts, literature, and science. This movement also encouraged Europeans to critique religion as they knew it. The social, cultural, and economic power once held by influential guilds began to diminish and wealthy aristocratic families became the new authorities. With funding flowing from wealthy families, artists, philosophers, poets and intellects flourished which influenced the understanding of art, architecture and science.


The Rise of Protestanism






The rise of protestanism or the reformation is a significant event in history which marks the split of the church into the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. Martin Luther, an integral figure during the reformation composed his “95 Theses” which challenged the church and protested the pope’s sale of indulgences, a way for people to reduce their punishment from sins committed.   

  • Work: The concept of a calling, a life-task set by God was introduced. Work took on a moral importance, a way of fulfilling worldly obligations to serve God. Every calling had the same worth in the eyes of God and hence there was dignity to all types of work. This also resulted in an exploration of disciplines outside of theology.

  • Workforce: With the invention of the printing press and the important Lutheran principle of everyone being able to read the bibles themselves, literacy rose, gender inequality in education reduced and the development of human capital flourished.

  • Workplace: As activity in relation to work was linked to serving God, more time was spent at the workplace and leisure time began to be condemned and looked down upon.

  • Social: The work ethic had strong impact on society, it emphasised on a disciplined work and social life and the importance of savings and capital accumulation which in turn allowed for social mobility.  Some historians also argue that women, in relation to marriage, were given more freedom and more responsibility than under the Catholic church. People who were once part of the same religion, were now polarised along religious lines. While tolerance amongst different faiths differed between places and times, there are cases of formation of distinct subcultures and cases where trade, family and friendship flourished and were sufficient to bind people of different faiths.

Did protestant work ethic lay the foundations for modern capitalism to thrive?


The First Industrial Revolution






“Week after Week we this dull Task pursue,

Unless when winnowing Days produce a new;

A new indeed, but frequently a worse,

The Threshall yields but to the Master's Curse:

He counts the Bushels, counts how much a Day,

Then swears we've idled half our Time away.

Why look ye, Rogues! D'ye think that this will do?

Your Neighbours thresh as much again as you.”

- passage from The Thresher’s labour by Stephen Duck

The first industrial revolution that began in Britain is characterised by the invention of steam power. The textile industry which was previously a cottage industry, adopted new technologies that allowed for faster and more efficient production. These new developments made Britain a commercial prowess carrying out global trading through  vast networks.

  • Work: There was a separation of intellectual powers of production from manual labour and a separation of work from talent. Work was viewed as monotonous, it limited personal development and alienated the pleasure in labour as the goods being produced were not connected to the makers intent or desire, no freedom of choice existed. Work shifted from being task-oriented to time-oriented. The multiplicity of tasks within work reduced significantly, irregular work patterns changed due to the need for synchronised work, the division of labour and processes dictated by machines.

  • Workforce: Prior to the industrial revolution (a supply-side phenomenon), a lesser-known demand-side phenomenon known as the industrious revolution had already changed behaviours of households. There was a reduced amount of leisure time and a reduction in self-sufficiency as households chose to allocate their resources more towards market-supplied goods. "Furnish him [the labourer] with the manufactures and commodities and he will do it [toil to produce a marketable surplus] of himself," wrote Hume, a scottish enlightenment philosopher. While workers had previously been forced to work out of necessity, they were now forced to labour because they were slaves to their own wants. The emergence of the bread-winner maker household can be attributed to this time, where the ideal of an adult male wage was sufficient to support the household, thereby removing women and children from the paid labour force. Due to the emphasis on division of labour, the level of skill required from each individual dropped significantly. They needed to be a cog in the wheel without having any understanding of other processes.

  • Workplace: The workplace previously was visited based on necessity. When a person had control of their working lives, a rhythm of bouts of intense work followed by idleness were noticed. However, the workplace under the factory system which emphasised the division of labour was highly controlled, supervised and time driven. Greater segregation formed between work and life. Social interactions at the workplace were considered a waste of time.

  • Social: New patterns of demand made the production system more capital-intensive and oriented to full-time male workers. With a focus on providing quality education and better nutrition rather than having large families, family sizes reduced. The education system became a training ground for future industry jobs. Punctuality, order, and regularity tried to habituate children to labour and fatigue. However, the suppression of leisure also took its toll. It led to the exploitation of non-working family members, binge drinking and an increase in illegitimacy and child abandonment. As the first age to adopt the widespread use of clocks, it dealt with time-sense in its technological conditioning and time-measurement as a means of labour exploitation.


The Second Industrial Revolution






​The second industrial revolution is also referred to as the technological revolution as great leaps were made in technology. The application of scientific knowledge resulted in new inventions at great speed.

  • Work: With the adoption of Taylorism, machine-oriented discipline was applied to labour relations. Work was divided into different assessable components to easily measure the efficiency of each worker. Technological systems became commonplace and a part of all work cycles. These systems dictated the speed at which the work needed to be done. In continuous flow production, workers remained stationary, and the tasks moved to them, thereby minimising breaks between tasks.

  • Workforce: Laziness and labour inefficiencies were assumed to be inherent in labour. This was dealt with by setting wages based on piece work and scientific factory planning. Labour was commodified, an item that was priced, hired and fired in the labour market, a system in which only the efficient workforce could remain employed. 

  • Workplace: The low-cost delivery of electricity allowed for the decentralisation of manufacturing and the growth of smaller firms. Firms that could not meet the minimum requirement to efficiently use steam engines. Without cumbersome requirements, it freed up floor space and allowed for a redesign of workplace layouts. On the other hand, it also allowed for the growth of huge concerns that could maximise economies of scale.

  • Social: New food preservation techniques, improved transportation, and an increase in global trade reduced the price of proteins as compared to carbohydrates thereby benefiting the consumer but not necessarily the farmer. Nutrition improved, the infant mortality rate dropped, and people enjoyed a higher standard of living. However, such industrialisation also introduced new challenges. It led to urbanisation, large demographic shifts to highly dense areas, unsafe working conditions in factories and mines, the breaking up of traditional communities, alienation, and the need to compete with non-tiring machines.

How did the 40-hour work week originate?

Computer Circuit Board

The Third  Industrial Revolution






The 3rd industrial revolution also referred to as the information revolution, digital revolution or as the electronic revolution is the period which allowed for an expansion in computing capabilities.

Work: The amount of processing power available to do work increased enormously. The use of calculators to do complex tasks, the use of spreadsheet software to carry out financial modeling and the use of word processor to deskill typing made computer adoption a necessity.  With adoption of systems to make tasks easier, job opportunities for typists and secretaries began to reduce. In the US, computer sales increased from 800,000 in 1981 to 12 million in 1992. While previously used modes of communication like telephonic calls required synchronization by both parties and a level of deliberate intention, email allowed for easy asynchronous communication with large groups including those who may be vaguely relevant. With information that may or may not be relevant, sifting through emails and understanding which ones were to be actioned became a new task for most employees.

Workforce: The adoption of new technologies required the training of large number of people within the workforce and with new software continuously being developed, skill development needed to be an ongoing process. With the growing global supply chains and increased interoperability of software programs, workforces expanded. Teams located in different locations were now working together and serving customers from across the world. The means of collaboration allowed for open-source communities to develop software bottom-up. Such collaboration allowed for other popular trends such as outsourcing and offshoring making the workforce more connected and reliant on each other than ever before.

Workplace: Computers, devices with microprocessors and the internet became ubiquitous. A computer placed on an office desk became the norm. While less noticeable in factories as computers were hidden within larger machines, the reliance on computers had grown significantly which in turn reduced operator intervention. One operator could now tend to a large number of systems, thereby increasing productivity. With the spread of internet to homes, work boundaries were broken, and work crept into homes. During this period large corporations began to invest and grow internal R&D facilities at workplaces. Continuous improvement, innovating, being a step ahead of competition and creating differentiating factors were absolutely essential to gain market share.

Social: Media via televisions being shared across nations and across the globe allowed people to share a common experience. However, it also a created a family-centered society rather than a collective community as television offered entertainment within the confines of a home. The rise of email allowed families and friends across the globe to stay in contact. The availability and accessibility of information using web browsers and search engines made knowledge acquisition a possibility for anyone with interest and curiosity. However, the internet also brought risks. There was fear that an increase in time spent on solitary technology activities and a reduction of time spent on social activities would have an adverse impact on individual well-being,  relationships with others, and the development of social capital building amongst local communities.


The 4th industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 is focused on Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) that impact both digital and physical worlds. The fourth revolution is different from the previous three revolutions in relation to the speed at which technologies are being developed and implemented. While the previous pace was considered linear, the pace we are experiencing today is exponential.

  • Work: Increased level of automation of work using artificial intelligence and machine learning resulting in the emergence of new jobs and the phasing out of others. With technologies augmenting human activities, digital literacy is essential.

  • Workforce: There is an emergence and growth of different working arrangements outside the standard employee and employer relationship. This provides more flexibility to the workforce and includes gig workers, freelancers, and contractors. With the speed at which innovations are taking place, there is a requirement for upskilling and reskilling to fill emerging positions and to help workers navigate a changing labor market.

  • Workplace: The workplace is no longer viewed as only a physical space. The growth of the hybrid and remote office along with the required virtual collaboration tools have enabled individuals and teams to work synchronously and asynchronously to achieve their goals without impacting productivity.

  • Social: There were already concerns of rising inequalities brought about by the adoption of technology. However, the double disruption from technology and the pandemic has further deepened the gap and if unchecked can cause the marginalized to face greater struggles. The rise of non-standard work that provides flexibility to workers carry risks of low bargaining power and reduced social and legal protection.

Computer Robot

The Fourth 

Industrial Revolution




Acknowledgement & References




I would like to thank Mina Henein and Zena Assaad, staff from the 3A Institute, The Australian National University for their supervision and support.



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Hydraulic Agriculture

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Black Death

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The Third Industrial Revolution

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Drawing connections from the past to the present and envisioning new futures


  • How did the 9 to 5 work cycle emerge? Do humans have a natural work rhythm and is it universal?

  • When did work shift from being task oriented to time oriented?


When people were in control of their own work cycles, i.e. prior to hydraulic agriculture, the natural rhythm was often bouts of intense work followed by idleness. In the following periods, authorities with power and control determined work cycles based on the task that required completion, often dependent on daylight hours. During the first industrial revolution that work seemed to shift to a task oriented one. With the introduction of Taylor’s principles, workers were being monitored on hours but also on the number of tasks completed. After a great struggle, an eight-hour work week was mandated in the United States and encouraged globally by the International Labor organization. With internet and access to computers outside the confines of the workplace, the eight-hour work shift began to lose its meaning. Work began to creep into homes. This has been further accelerated with access to emails and collaboration apps on mobile phones, a way of always being connected to work. We work in teams across the globe across time zones where each person’s 9 to 5 does not synchronize but we continue to collaborate and work effectively. Further, with the rise of non-standard work, members of the workforce have greater flexibility to design their own work shifts.

While the 9 to 5 cycle is a ritual that many workers religiously follow, does it still have any significance to us today? What are the impacts of not enforcing this ritual, who are the beneficiaries? Can organizations, senior leadership and managers trust their workforce to fulfil obligations or are some old Taylorism habits ingrained so deep that tactics need to be developed to push workers to clock required hours? Should hours clocked matter or should the focus be on delivering quality outcomes within reasonable deadlines?