Before Henry Ford built the assembly line for the Model T he used a system and structure based on historical models to build the Model N. Ford first laid the plans of the car on the factory floor, laying all of the parts on top of the plans. Then, his workforce collaborated collectively to build the Model N, which was a huge advancement. At the time the average car took two weeks to build. Ford perfected building the Model N in 2 days.
That wasn’t good enough. Ford broke the process of building a car to 84 steps. He then assigned different people to do each step, and nothing else. This new linear system gave the ability for workers to be radically focused on one thing but they became efficient at that one step. The creation of the assembly line decreased the time to build the Model T took car manufacturing from 2 days when Ford was building the Model N, to two and a half hours to build the Model T.
Most of the time we cannot fully understand the technological changes that are changing at an accelerated pace. We are frogs in the pot where the temperature is slowly turned up so that we hardly feel the effects until it is too late. These transitional periods present a mismatch between the work needing to be done and the way work gets done. Ford cars were built as stationary objects and used the skills of the community learned in the agricultural age. This new communal approach did not match the complexity of building a car and the larger cultural context of the industrial age.
It’s one thing for culture to have a hard time making these massive transitions. We, as consumers, seem to crave the new, the model T, in these transitions but it is much harder for workers. Stories abound that when Ford created the assembly line he had a hard time finding anyone to do the specific job. Most people were psychologically used to being generalists that all worked together with a community to build something. Yet, the assembly line was dehumanizing and demanded that workers fit into the machine of the assembly line. To convince workers Ford had to pay triple the going wages.
Working for the industrial process spawned trade unions and labor movements. A diverse group of trade unionists chose a variety of days on which to celebrate labor. In the United States, a September holiday called Labor Day was first proposed in the early 1880s. In the early 20th century Labor Day became a national holiday celebrating the workers and they’re striving to get control of their work lives, and to have some self-determination.
Today, in the post-covid open talent world, Labor Day needs to be recalibrated. We need to not only celebrate labor but also help usher in a new era of work. We all need to work on new protections and safety nets as the unit of a company becomes smaller and divisible by the individual.
Just as the shift from the agricultural age to the industrial age meant that work and how workers needed to be supported was rethought, the way digitally enabled freelancers to need to be supported needs to be reinvented.
At the Center for the Transformation of Work we are focused on transforming work for a billion people by 2025, and to do so we need to create a better foundation for workers who are driving today’s workforce.
Come join the movement!