In his article entitled “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Thompson traces the change in societal attitudes toward time and examines its relation to the development of work discipline. Based on this publication, this paper aims to explain how people’s perception of time changed in the 18th and 19th centuries and how these changes were related to work organization. Further, it will discuss the reasons for the development of work discipline during the Industrial Revolution and explain the link between economic growth and culture.
People have not always perceived time as a valuable and limited resource as they do now. Before the 18th century, when societies were mostly agricultural, individuals did not schedule their activities using the clock. Thompson mentions that clocks were sometimes called “the devil’s mill,” haste was seen as “a lack of decorum,” and people did not use the precise time to make appointments or have meals. However, in the 18th and 19th century, time began to be perceived as currency, and it was “not passed but spent.” Idleness started to be condemned, and, instead, people were expected to spend their time productively by putting their efforts to work.
The change in the perception of time was closely related to modifications in the organization of work. In pre-industrial society, where people were occupied in agriculture, fishing, or other manual trades, the work organization was mainly task-oriented rather than time-oriented. It means that individuals engaged in activities that appeared to be “an observed necessity.” However, as the organization of work during industrialization began to involve factories and workshops, the importance of time-oriented work increased significantly. Since time was money, people had to work long hours at factories to bring their employers as much profit as possible. There also emerged a distinct border between life and work that was absent in the prior task-oriented work organization. While previously, it was common for individuals to socialize when completing their daily tasks, now workers were expected to devote their working time solely to their jobs.
Three main reasons can be distinguished that led to a great emphasis on work discipline during the Industrial Revolution. The first reason is linked to the changed organization of work. Factory labor was highly synchronized, meaning that many people had to perform the same work during a specific period of time. Therefore, in order to ensure this synchronization, employers came up with work discipline and various methods of maintaining it, such as fines, informers, time-keepers, and timesheets. The second reason was the attempts to reduce poverty. A link between poor work discipline and poverty can be traced from writings addressed to people of that time. For example, it was mentioned that if a worker was lazy and did not apply his hands to work, he could “expect only poverty as his reward.” Lastly, work discipline was emphasized because it was necessary for increasing employers’ profits. Thompson writes that, sometimes, employers did not let workers know the time to be able to exploit their labor as long as possible. This allowed factory owners to increase the productivity of their businesses but eventually led to workers’ resentment and reduction of working hours.
Finally, culture has a strong connection to the development and growth of the economy. Thompson writes, “there is no such thing as economic growth which is not, at the same time, growth or change of a culture.” It means that for any economic growth to take place, cultural changes in society should occur as well. For example, industrialization led to significant economic development and led the world to its current state. However, the success of industrialization can be attributed to a cultural shift marked by changed societal attitudes toward time. Without people’s acknowledgment of the value of time and discipline, industries would be unlikely to achieve rapid growth.
Thompson, Edward Palmer. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present, no. 38 (1967): 56–97.