The Industrial Revolution’s Continued Haunting of Employee Engagement
Happy Halloween Everybody! But, seriously, the impact of beliefs embedded during the Industrial Revolution is this scary. In fact, reluctance to go of the behaviors and beliefs from this era kill careers and employee engagement every-single-day.
For so many CEOs and human capital executives, employee disengagement continues to undermine targets of the business plan, customer loyalty, productivity, and retention. To move beyond the problem, we must identify how the past continues to haunt work culture today.
The Industrial Revolution has had an iron grip on our culture for the past three centuries. Clearly this era was over by the end of the 20th century. Even Y2K now seems like a distant and quaint memory. The changes in front of us collide with the beliefs about work that our parents, grandparents, and many employers offered up as absolute truth.
Prior to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a change took place at a far more glacial pace. People spent most of their time and money growing or buying food. Making even one garment by hand took days. Industry resided in cottages. Child mortality was so high that many people had large numbers of children hoping that one or two would survive. Education was reserved for landowners, nobility, and the religious elite. The rich and powerful did not pay taxes while poor people paid rent and taxes.
The first great turning point in the world of work took place almost three hundred years ago. At that time, the British called the shots for how the rest of our world functioned. It was the most studied country on the face of the earth. In 1733, an English watchmaker named John Kay invented the simple machine called the Flying Shuttle. Its purpose was to improve the productivity of weaving. One person was now able to do the work of three. Fueled by riches, this innovation tipping point quickly turned into a tidal wave. Water and steam power moved the textile industry into high gear. The first inexpensive process for the mass production of steel was invented. We moved from the scarcity of food to storehouses of abundant supplies. Now producing more goods than any other country, England needed to find ways to get these products to other countries. Roads were built and boats got steam engines. Rails were laid. Landowners became industrialists. The banking industry was invented to grease the skids and the UK developed a world of consumers.
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, they always do. 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.”
Over time, humans proved to put up with a lot in order to have that. The message played to our worst fears.
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. Although 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.
In Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller quantified predictions he had been making since the mid-1930s. He warned the world that if we did not find ways to either eliminate or remove the poisons generated from fossil fuels and chemicals, the world would become uninhabitable by the turn of the century. Mr. Fuller must have died with a great deal of frustration because very few people listened to him. Most did not think about these issues because repetition produces a trancelike state. Fitting in, tending to our workstations, going through the routine became the mass trance of the Industrial Revolution. Most were happy for progress. Wages were small. Long hours were filled with back-breaking and repetitive work. Safety standards were appalling.
In many factories, children were sent in to tend machines because the spaces were so small. If someone was injured or killed, others were waiting in line to step in and replace them. In fact, some of the laws passed during the early days of the Industrial Revolution indicate just how barbaric many employers were during that era. For example, the Factory Act of 1819 limited the work of children to 12 hours a day. And in 1833, children under the age of 9 were banned from working in the textile industry and 10- to 13-year-olds were limited to a 48-hour workweek.
Ironically, England’s innovation also led to it losing its grip on the world. In the early days of the revolution, British leadership did its best to protect the country’s manufacturing technology. But that progress opened up channels to the rest of the world. As mass-production spread throughout the globe, other countries not only became more powerful, they turned into competitors. It wasn’t long before every developed nation was playing the same game. And for the next 250 years, the Industrial Revolution dictated how we lived, consumed, worked, competed, and got educated. As the promise of predictability and survival evolved, we added various employee benefits: vacation plans, a retirement plan for when we grew old, medical coverage if we got sick, and so on. The most talented embraced it all and worked their way up the proverbial “career ladder.”
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 a powerful capability to snuff life out in dramatic fashion. This led to the most awesome victories, but at a terrible price. But as we returned from world wars, manufacturing supremacy led to jobs for life, a comfortable middle-class living, and what was, for many, a comfortable 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 to move 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.5
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.
Whereas our first work revolution took hundreds of years, a new one was quietly birthed that day. This innovation would take just 50 years to completely change the way we live, work, think, learn, grow, and transform. The original wave from this technology would grow in ferocity and depth, disrupting virtually every work model we had developed over 300 years. In the mid-1990s, the wave made landfall and started to wipe out all of the promises and ideals of the industrial workplace.
Today, ever-accelerating technology is wiping out task-based work, dismantling mind-numbing jobs, and creating a new subclass of the underemployed currently hovering at 48%. If the numbers are accurate, a big portion of our remaining workers is in jobs that offer little meaning and enthusiasm.
Much of today’s turmoil emerges from millions of workers looking towards the future of work and having grave difficulty in finding just how they are going to make a living.
America’s political leadership, on both sides of the fence, is failing us.
Our educational institutions are not teaching people how to change.
Too many CEOs and business owners believe that transforming their worker’s relationship towards work is “not their job.”
Right now, only a handful of enlightened CEOs are hiring for potential and teaching their people how to grow.
We need more of them! Because if not them, who?
Technology is giving us freedom from tasks. As we accelerate into the future, the question isn’t, “How will I get another job, just like the numbing job I hated?” It is, “How will I use my freedom to live a life of purpose, of making our customers more engaged, of helping my colleagues find the support they need?”
I point towards business because it is doing a far better job than our government. They are doing more to improve civil rights, develop equal pay, teach people to progress, and help our world become a better place to live. I know that the culture of outrage, the need to blame others, and obsession over dysfunction will probably respond. But, before you contact me, please go online and study organizations like Salesforce, Trader Joe’s, Adobe, Marriot, Southwest Airlines, and many more.
This is the time to stop studying evil plots, corrupt organizations, crime-riddled politics, and chanting, “They took my job.” *
*Yes, this is influenced by South Park.
We are living during the biggest restructuring of work in well over 300 years. There has never been a better time to find work that we love. It has never been easier to start a business. We are in a time where our lifestyle and our work can live in harmony.
Our country needs as many business leaders, educators, and yes, politicians to step away from the culture of outrage and tell us how to change. I know this is possible because my business has helped thousands of people change their lives in just two days. We need more leaders to step forward and show us how to do that.
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