Working Life Then and Now:

Reflections of an Intern

In the British Workman and other publications of the Victorian period there is a clear attitude towards the working lives of its readers. Hard work is virtuous, moral and even good for you as: “Health of body and mind are promoted by labour.” (British Workman No. 87) Leaving aside the lack of evidence for such a claim, and the motivations behind its publication, it certainly demonstrates to us just how ingrained the Victorian attitude to work was. Work was not simply a way to put food on the table, it was a way of defining your physical, mental and even spiritual health. So how does this sentiment compare with our modern-day attitude to work? In order to find this out we have interviewed a number of young professionals about their attitudes to the workplace and their place within it.

In terms of building a career for themselves there has been a shift in how young people enter the workplace. Whereas in the Victorian era you would be more likely to perhaps be initiated into a trade through a family member or apprenticeship, in the modern workplace there is more of an opportunity for workers to pursue the career that they want. Of course having said that there are always pressures involved in finding the right career, while many of our interviewees had a clear career goal to start with, others often found themselves working within a role to make ends meet and then moving within the position to reach a more interesting and advantageous job. There is also a sense of working within an industry to build experience, before moving towards a specific goal. One of the interview subjects, a courseware editor, was following this particular path. Her ultimate career goal was to move to a commercial publishing house, but in the meantime working in an editorial role based around insurance policy would help to build her skills in the field. As she put it: “If I can edit insurance, then I should be able to edit any type of content.” This sort of flexibility in career path taken seemed to be a common theme among many of the subjects spoken to.

The long-term career goals of those we interviewed tended to be varied, but all with some similarities. Virtually everyone interviewed had plans to move on to the next rung of their career within the next few years, with around two years spent in the role being the average. In this sense it seems that having a job for life is not the done thing anymore. One of the professionals we spoke to attributed this to changes in her industry of copywriting: “Where as traditionally you’d be aiming to become Lead Copywriter or Director of Copy, I’d like my role to become more conceptual, working on both the visual and written sides to help brands with their image.” Our changing attitudes towards work also have much to do with the evolution of technology, not just since Victorian times, but also within the past few decades. The way in which we define productivity at work has inevitably shifted.

British Workman No. 115

Another key issue within the modern workplace seems to be one of flexibility when it comes to how we are managed. Of those people interviewed many stressed the importance of there being a give and take attitude to how they were managed. Initiatives such as working from hour, and flexibility in terms of work hours were common themes. Most felt that this increased productivity, and in some cases not having these measures in place had been the issue that prompted them to leave a previous role. As one of the subjects pointed out “a one size fits all approach doesn’t necessarily work.” Maintaining a balance between work and home life was a key concern among those we spoke to, and one that many seemed to have problems with at one time or another. With the advent of Wi-Fi and smartphones we now find ourselves in a workplace where we can be almost constantly linked to. The pressure to be available 24/7 through email can be a struggle, especially for young workers who feel they need to go the extra mile to prove their worth in a new career.

Taking these agreed upon tenants of the working world and applying a degree of flexibility to them can also change the way in which we view them. Discussions of the pros and cons of our current working patterns are common in both the media and politics. As one of the interview subjects puts it these aspects of work can seem “a little strange and arbitrary.” The question of whether shifting our working patterns would create more or less productivity remains contentious. The workforce as a whole continues to see a rise in productivity. Based upon data published by the Office for National Statistics the output per worker has tripled since 1959. With workers today having a more efficient output shouldn’t they also be rewarded with a better quality of life?

While the pressures and challenges faced in the modern workplace have changed and evolved along with our working practices, we can still trace the link back to the Victorian attitude to work. Technology has helped us to become more productive workers, but in many ways we still live under the Victorian notion of work being a moral guide. Ultimately our attitude towards work may need to change dramatically in the coming years.