Mission and Themes

Work and life course as historical problems. Perspectives of the International Research Center ‘re:work’

Andreas Eckert & Jürgen Kocka


Research at the Center should contribute to the history of work and labour. It should contribute to an exploration of the ways in which human beings have structured and perceived their life course. It should investigate the relations between work and life course, between the images of work and the images of the life course; between rules guiding work and labour on the one hand, and the patterns which structure the life course and its phases on the other. Most studies will concentrate on specific periods and spaces, depending on the fellows’ preferences. But the intention is to reconstruct comprehensive contexts, arrive at broad comparisons and study interconnections across borders on a global scale, thus contributing to the advancement of global history. Each year the Center invites about ten fellows from different parts of the world to pursue research projects within this framework, and advance discussions between them. What follows is a short sketch of three discursive areas which the Center tries to interconnect, explore and further develop.


I. History of Work

We can observe a trend from the history of workers and labour movements to the history of work and labour. There has been much research and writing over the last decades about the history of work (and labour) in Europe (or rather in some areas of Europe), especially with respect to some subfields such as Begriffsgeschichte (history of concepts); labour within business enterprises and the impact of technological change in different branches; the role of labour in the history of classes and class conflicts; on work in the context of popular culture; as well as on work and labour as part of the history of ideas (e.g. work in relation to religion or scientific thought) (Ehmer and Lis 2009; Kocka 2010; Lis and Soly 2012). But the field as a whole does not seem to be well structured. Many questions remain open, and a number of problems are still in need of further investigation. Here are four of them.


First: Something close to a standard narrative on Europe has emerged as far as the period up to roughly 1800 is concerned. This narrative contrasts antiquity with medieval and early modern developments and emphasizes the history of concepts, evaluations and ideas of work (Arbeit, travail). Over the centuries a general concept of work slowly emerged in contrast to semantics in antiquity and partly to that of medieval times. Neglecting variations and fluidities one can perhaps say that by 1800 work (Arbeit, travail) had come to mean a human activity which “has an end beyond itself, being designed to produce or achieve something; it involves a degree of obligation or necessity, being a task that others set us or that we set ourselves; and it is arduous involving effort and persistence beyond the point at which the task ceases to be wholly pleasurable” (Thomas 1999, p. 14). Opposite concepts were idleness, play and leisure. While we observe this semantic trend in English, German and French, it is perhaps not a trend observable in every language. Over the centuries we can reconstruct  practical constellations – opportunities, needs and choices – which facilitated or even occasioned the emergence of such a general concept of work.


As to the evaluation of work, ambivalence is the key notion over the centuries. Work and labour have meant Fluch and Segen: curse and blessing. Work and labour have been seen as sources of suffering, but also of self-realization; praise of industrious work has been frequent, but so has praise of otium or laziness. Still, gradually and in spite of many counter-tendencies, an upgrading of work took place. In order to understand this change, one has to study the role of Christianity in medieval times and the Reformation; the cultures of burgher towns over the centuries; the role of the authorities in the towns and cities, but also in the absolutist states fighting poverty and propagating industrious work; and the glorification of work by Enlightenment authors. In this context, work began to take on a more central position in human life.


But many questions remain open: Are these observations correct? Whose voices have been documented and whose voices have not? Tremendous differences existed in the experience and evaluation of work/labour between classes and strata, regions and religions, gender and centuries, and perhaps between languages too.


Second: There is also something close to a standard narrative about nineteenth and twentieth century developments in Europe. This narrative concentrates on the rise of capitalism, which turned work for wages (labour or Lohnarbeit) into a mass phenomenon; on industrialization and urbanization, which tended to separate the spheres of work and life; on the semantic narrowing of the concept from work in a broader sense as in the quotation from Keith Thomas above towards gainful, market-related labour (Erwerbsarbeit). Work/labour became more important for human identities and social relations (inclusion and exclusion), as well as for the rising social sciences and the welfare state. Something like a ‘labour society’ (‘Arbeitsgesellschaft’) emerged. One should discuss the changing patterns of gender differentiation and, more in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth century, the rise of a certain standard notion of labour (‘Normalarbeitsverhältnis’ – male bread winner supporting his family, lifelong full employment etc.), a pattern which was in fact never ‘normal’, but only ever attainable for a minority.


Seen against this background, the present situation is frequently described as one of fast change, of dissolution and crisis due to widespread unemployment, expanding precarious working relations, increasing fluidity of working conditions in spatial and temporal respects as well as changing values and the weakening of work’s identity forming power. The end of the ‘labour society’ (‘Arbeitsgesellschaft’) has been observed – and disputed. Such changes are related to new challenges to the welfare state.


But each of these items needs to be re-examined. Was the period between the nineteenth and the twentieth century really that different from previous periods? For which regions in Europe does this differentiation  work at all? And is there a danger of generalizing a very particular development that occurred in certain regions within Europe? What is happening now? Many current descriptions of crises seem to be based on idealized visions of the past (such as those linked to the ‘Normalarbeitsverhältnis’). Comparative studies across and beyond national borders and world regions will probably change this view.


Third: It is obvious that more research has been undertaken into some types of work than others. Middle and upper class work is less well-known than manual labour in agriculture and industrial production. The distinction between manual and non-manual activities may merit reconsideration, particularly with respect to the tremendous expansion of the service industries. While the work habits of scholars and processes of professionalization have been studied extensively, the work of entrepreneurs and civil servants is less well known. In all cases the relations between work/labour and household/family should be of central interest, and gender differences have to be taken into consideration.


Fourth: The Center is particularly interested in the difference between work/labour and other human activities which are not subsumed under ‘work’ or ‘labour’, in other words, in the changing definitions (concepts) of work as well as in the perception, experience and existence of work/labour as a separate sphere (or not, as the case may be). In this context we should study relations between labour (Erwerbsarbeit) and soldiering, between labour and household/family/interpersonal work, between labour and education/self-education, between labour and sports/organized and commercialized games, between labour and entertainment, as well as between work and art, and labour and sex. Particular attention needs to be given to the changing relationship between paid labour and unpaid voluntary work (philanthropy, civic commitments, neighbourhood work, NGOs). Perhaps one should advocate a new broadening of the concept of work. Ralf Dahrendorf’s phrase: von der Arbeits- zur Tätigkeitsgesellschaft.

II. Global History

Recent trends towards the transnationalization/globalization of historical studies as well as the effort to integrate more systematically area studies into historical research have been a driving force behind the founding of the Center. They also define its program. Global history of labour is a rising field with many aspects (van der Linden 2008; 2010). But this new trend should not lead us to ignore the fact that, for instance, Latin American like North American and European historians have been studying particularities of labour in their regions for decades. African and Indian historians began more recently, but with a focus either on area or on specific types of labour, for example plantation labour. The following four topics or questions deserve particular attention.


First: As far as its methodological status is concerned, global labour history is more an ‘area of concern’ than a theory to which everyone must subscribe. Of particular importance is the combination and the compatibility of comparison and entanglements. While comparative approaches concentrate on the analysis of similarities and differences, entangled history approaches stress relations, transfers and interconnections between different units of observation. Sometimes the compatibility of these two approaches is questioned. The Center’s program assumes that it is both possible and useful to combine histoire comparée and histoire croisée (Haupt and Kocka 2009, pp. 1—30). Recently some protagonists of global history seem to have moved away from systematic comparison. In our view, this is a loss.


Second: Perspectives in the context of colonialism/post-colonialism have been central in many attempts to globalize historical studies. This continues to be true with regard to labour history. In this field the mutual relationship between social change within the colonizing countries and the colonized territories continues to be of interest although there are voices which hold that the intellectual strength of post-colonialism is weakening. The crucial question that remains open is how colonization shapes labour history. One important reference here is the slave plantation as a formative experience in developing large-scale, closely supervised enterprises. How did this experience shape ideas, and the organization and practice of labour in the world? Another is the point Marx made that the availability of land and the possibility of migration are an obstacle to primitive accumulation. Why did this problem remain even after relatively long-term and intense efforts at colonization?


In this framework the transfer of work patterns (including juridical concepts of labour, work ethics, training and discipline) from the West to the colonies can be analysed. Frequently the results of such transfers differed from its original intentions (central concepts: transfer, Anverwandlung, Abstossung, Wandel). At the same time it is essential that influences moving in the other direction – from the colony to the metropolis – be stated and investigated. Migration is an important field of study in this context.


Third: For a long time European and Western labour historians tended to ‘universalize’ their views based on often rather specific examples. They ignored for instance work of Caribbean specialists for whom the relationship of plantation labour and global capitalism has been central since the work of C.L.R. James and Eric Williams in the 1930s and 1940s. The long tradition of Indianists and – less continuous – of Africanists writing about labour and capitalism should be acknowledged as well. Recent global historical research, often building on area-based research, has drawn out numerous hybrid constellations, for example, when slaves were ordered by their owners to leave the mansion or the plantation and work for wages, but bring back part of their earnings. Similarly, combinations of slave labour and wage labour as well as of serfdom and capitalism (such as in Russia around 1900) would seem to relativize the thesis of the outstanding importance of contractually free wage labour as a defining element of capitalism (as suggested by classical writers). Redefinitions of class may have to follow. The relationship between free and unfree labour is a central topic.


Fourth: While within the West the history of labour movements has lost some of its previous attraction for scholars, the global history of labour movements still offers a lot of white space and excitement. Will global comparisons show that the specific combination of protest, emancipation and reform/revolution defining classical labour movements in the West has been specific to Europe and/or the West? This might have interesting implications for the discussions about a European memory culture in which memory of work, labour and labour movements might deserve a more visible place than they occupy now. Again, what we should avoid is the idea that the West remains the model from which we then look for complications and deviations. There are other ways of thinking about different parts of the world.


A global labour history faces numerous problems, which at the same time offer the opportunity to critically re-engage with central issues of the history of labour and work (for the following see van der Linden 2010, p. 365f.). The core concepts of traditional labour history are primarily based on experiences made in the North-Atlantic region and are thus in need of critical reconsideration. The concept of ‘labour’ itself provides a good example of this problem. Several Western languages, including English, make a distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘work’. In these cases, ‘labour’ often refers to toil and effort or to market-related activities, while ‘work’ refers more to creative processes. This binary meaning, however, does not exist in many other languages. In some languages there is no single word for abstractions such as ‘labour’ or ‘work’. To which extent are the concepts of ‘labour’ and ‘work’ trans-culturally usable? At the very least, we should define their content much more precisely than is usually done. Where does ‘labour’ begin, and ‘work’ end? Is a precise boundary to be drawn between ‘labour’ and ‘work’, or is that boundary less obvious than is often assumed? And where are the boundaries between work and non-work?


The concept of the ‘working class’ merits a critical re-consideration as well. It appears that this term was used in the nineteenth century to identify a group of so-called ‘respectable’ workers in order to distinguish them from slaves and other unfree labourers, the self-employed (the ‘petty bourgeoisie’) and poor outcasts, the lumpenproletariat. This interpretation, however, does not seem appropriate to most parts of the world. While unfree labour may have been rather exceptional in the Global North during the last centuries, it was the rule in large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. A new conceptualization of ‘working class’ should be less oriented to the exclusion than to the inclusion of various dependent or marginalized groups of workers. Forms such as chattel slavery, indentured labour and sharecropping equally need attention. The implication of this is that the disciplinary boundaries of labour history will become more fluid, a process that is already under way. The historiography of chattel slavery, which until recently had been mostly ignored by labour historians, overlaps significantly with global labour history.  Related research fields such as the history of indentured labourers, of the Indian coolies who were also employed in other parts of Asia, as well as in Australia, Africa, and the Caribbean, are increasingly coming into the focus of labour historiography. There is also the question of how the way in which class is imagined shapes labour history – both for elites and for people who in one form or another worked.


III. History of Life Course

A third line of discussion defining the program of the Center is related to the history of ageing. Recent demographic change has triggered research in the opportunities and challenges faced by ageing societies (Ehmer and Pierenkemper 2008; Kocka and Staudinger 2010). It is this combination of a commitment to the history of work/labour, global historical approaches, and interest in the history of the life course that defines the specific trademark of the Center.


On the one hand, we are interested in the relationship between life phases and work; this is a controversial issue in the present public discussion, particularly with respect to the relationship between labour and retirement. In this respect the history of retirement since the eighteenth century is a major topic and closely related to the history of the welfare state. While the general picture seems clear, details and explanatory factors are not. Comparative studies of retirement are largely lacking. And does the concept of retirement make sense in societies where the welfare state is weak or non-existent? It is interesting to note that in Germany at least, employees (in contrast to the self-employed) began leaving the active labour force at an increasingly earlier age. Over the last few years a change has taken place, but it remains to be seen whether this is a mere interruption or a reversal of the trend. Children’s work and labour as well as the relation between work, labour and youth are important topics, as the ways in which people are socialized with the help of work/labour change significantly over time and between cultures.


Obviously, the distribution of active labour over the life cycle has changed and continues to change. This distribution differs between cultures and societies. What are the reasons for this, and what are the consequences? The age specificity of work situations and work experiences should be studied in connection with processes of upward, downward and sideward mobility. Labour force participation frequently defines the distinction between phases in the life course. Demographic change is occurring. Retirement starts later than it used to. What does this mean for the system of work? Changes to the system of work are on the way and are leading towards less permanent and less stable work situations; as such, spatial and temporal fluidities are increasing. What does this mean for the definition of phases in the life course? Examples from colonial Africa could provide interesting material for thought. In many African regions waged work was often something done by young men for a period of years, and family life was situated in other spaces.


The Centre’s program stresses the interrelations between work/labour and life course. Moving beyond this particular focus, it also proposes to consider the other dimensions of interconnections between life and work. Along this line, we are very interested in the relations between workplace and family/household as well as in the relationship between gainful labour (Erwerbsarbeit) and voluntary unpaid work (in neighbourhoods, NGOs, philanthropic fields etc.). Again, the question of how to define work or labour in contrast to other human activities becomes important. Furthermore, the concept of social reproduction is crucial here.


Finally, by dealing with the connections between work and life course we inquire into the relations between generations. How are skills, work experiences and dispositions handed on from one generation to the next, in the context of change and continuity? Children’s work within families, apprenticeship systems, other forms of training for work and labour deserve attention in this perspective, as does the role of family elders, including parents and grandparents. We are interested in processes of transition from one generation to the next, in the rules that influence these transitions, and in the tensions deriving from them. Again, combinations between market-related labour and work in the sense of (unpaid, voluntary) civil engagement become interesting. All this can be related to ethical questions concerning intergenerational justice.


In general, the Center intends to revive and integrate different kinds of labour history and to acknowledge the input and insights from labour historiography from all over the world. We critically engage with the notion of the ‘global’ and attempt to avoid a mechanistic contrast between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’. Instead we aim to investigate relations across borders and between continents, including relations of transfer, repression, learning, migration and mutual observation. We seek to compare as much as possible in order to find better explanations and interpretations of change, and to relate our discussions to broader questions of capitalism, differences between cultures and religions as well as globalization.


At the same time, the fellows arrive with their specific topics, and they wish to continue working on them while they are here. Usually they are more familiar with the history of work and labour than with the history of the life course. But we hope that during each year, conversation and discussion, cooperation and exchange will develop and intensively influence the way in which the fellows deal with their topics. We attempt to bring together scholars who share a number of interests but rarely communicate due to disciplinary boundaries and other reasons. We hope and expect that this will result in different research from that which would have been conducted outside of the context of re:work.


Relevant Literature

  • Josef Ehmer and Catharina Lis (eds), The Idea of Work in Europe from Antiquity to Early Modern Times, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009.
  • Josef Ehmer and Toni Pierenkemper (eds), Arbeit im Lebenszyklus / Work in the Life-Cycle, Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook 2008-1, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2008.
  • Heinz-Gerhard Haupt and Jürgen Kocka (eds), Comparative and Transnational History. Central European Approaches and New Perspectives, New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009.
  • Jürgen Kocka (ed), Work in a Modern Society. The German Historical Experience in Comparative Perspective, New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010.
  • Jürgen Kocka and Ursula M. Staudinger (eds), Gewonnene Jahre. Empfehlungen der Akademiengruppe Altern in Deutschland, Halle: Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, 2009. Also available in English: More Years, More Life. Recommendations of the Joint Academy Initiative on Ageing, Halle, 2010.
  • Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World. Essays toward a Global Labor History, Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  • Marcel van der Linden et al. (eds), Labour History Beyond Borders. Concepts and Explorations. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsanstalt, 2010.
  • Marcel van der Linden, ‘Labour History Beyond Borders’, in: Joan Allen et al. (eds), Histories of Labour. National and International Perspectives. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2010, pp. 353—383.
  • Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2012.
  • Keith Thomas (ed), The Oxford Book of Work, Oxford: UP, 1999.