The History Behind The World’s Most Disengaged Workforce (Part One)
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana
It is a fact that about 87% of the global workforce is disengaged. There are a series of historic events that created our present challenges. And, there is value in studying what happened that created so much cynicism, contempt, aimlessness & resignation in a big portion of today’s talent.
Prior to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, change took place at a glacial pace. We could visit a village in 800 AD and return in 1400 AD. Pretty much, things were the same. People spent most of their time growing or working to buy food. Education was for landowners, nobility and the religious elite. The Industrial Revolution began in 1733 when an English watchmaker named John Kay invented The Flying Shuttle, a weaving machine that did the work of three people. Within a hundred years, this model of increasing productivity led to rails being laid, the mass production of steel, a move from scarcity of food to abundance, and a complete reinvention of how most of the world worked.
The Industrial Revolution represented an intoxicating leap forward in the evolution of civilization. The architecture behind this revolution introduced goods and services that were previously available to only the wealthy. In a parallel to today’s work landscape, the Industrial Revolution resulted in the handing out of pink slips to virtually every worker from the previous era, but work didn’t go away, it simply changed. This phenomenon is also taking place today. As old structures and dynamics go away, we need to become more fluent in seeing where new structures and dynamics emerge because emerge, it always does. The difference? Three hundred years ago, it often took decades to change. Today, it can happen in a matter of days.
The old revolution also developed an unquenchable thirst for workers. Industrialists developed a recruitment pitch filled with standards and beliefs that haunt us today:
“If you come to work for us, we will give you survival and predictability.”
To most of those working on farms, hunting for food, or dealing with the day-to-day uncertainty of keeping that cobbler shop in business, the pitch sounded really good. Human capital nourished the machine, which took center stage in our work. Parents, schools, organized religion and governments prepared a new labor force that fit into the assembly lines, plugging bolts into holes. A new economy grew based on making large quantities of stuff. This worked for several hundred years. And, as with all personal or cultural advancements, there was also a price.
Predictability and survival didn’t just become two in a series of standards. They became the standard. While these standards made perfect sense at the time, consider how outdated they are now within our modern times. The fixation on predictability and survival dismisses joy, creativity, passion, engagement, full living and connectedness to others. It often keeps us from new learning. Most profoundly, the old standards obscure the birthright of every man, woman, and child, which is to find and pursue what we were born to do. The growing awareness of this is also one of the seeds fueling today’s discord with work. But, there was another great price we paid.
On the shadow side, our ability to build stuff also fueled the bloodiest wars in the history of humankind. We leveraged wars with new technology and powerful capability to snuff out life in dramatic fashion. This led to the most awesome victories, but at a terrible price. As we returned from world wars, manufacturing supremacy led to jobs for life, a comfortable middle-class living and what was, for many, a steady routine. We worked, we saved and we retired. The Industrial Revolution had successfully disrupted and transformed a culture that had stayed relatively the same for thousands of prior years.
In 1943, England dropped its next disruptive bomb on the world of work. A British engineer named Tommy Flowers demonstrated the first programmable computer to a stunned, skeptical room of military leaders. He developed this machine to decrypt German military code. It worked amazingly well. Ten of these “Colossi” were completed and used to gather intelligence. On June 5, 1944, a courier handed Eisenhower a note summarizing a Colossus decrypt. It confirmed that Hitler wanted no additional troops moved to Normandy. Moments later, he announced, “We go in tomorrow.” The rest is history. The first computer may have actually played a bigger role in ending World War II than the first atomic bomb.
Surprisingly, British leaders had the Colossi dismantled after the war. But, word of its power had gotten out. By 1946, the Eniac was invented and completed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania. The world’s first digital computer occupied 1,800 square feet, used about 18,000 vacuum tubes, weighed almost 50 tons and had less than half the power of a smartphone.
In 1975, the majority of American families fit into a term called “the middle-class.” Work was spelled out for most of us. Our lives were categorized in a school system designed to serve the industrial revolution. An average performance led to work in the trades. Above average meant white collar work. The best students became executives, doctors, lawyers or business owners. Much of America clocked in and clocked out. Life was fairly predictable. The conditioning and modeling prepared us for a bright future and it worked.
What happened during the next 25 years would break the ideals of that entire era.
Today’s point? The quest for predictability and survival haunts the workplace today. And, in its place is a far bigger game. We cannot see it if we continue looking back.
Tune in tomorrow.
Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work, Inc.
P: (310) 277-4850 / E: firstname.lastname@example.org
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