Industrialisation required an obedient and hard working labour force, yet factory routines and division of labour made work increasingly meaningless and unbearable and undermined the work ethic. Hours in factories were long and the work was tedious. Work for many people came to be seen as something to be endured in order to earn a living; a matter of serving time rather than producing finished goods. As work approximates slavery, the value of a work ethic declines.
Factories facilitated the subdivision of work, which increased production. The example of pin manufacture used by Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations is now well known. He argued that by dividing the task of producing each pin into a number of sub-tasks, ten men could produce 48,000 pins in the time that they would have produced 10 pins if they had been working individually.
In 1832 Charles Babbage wrote about how parts of a skilled job could be separated off and given to unskilled workers who required little training, leaving the skilled worker with a reduced task that could be done more quickly. This reduced labour costs since unskilled workers were paid less and also reduced the employer’s dependence on skilled workers who had more bargaining power than the average worker.
It was difficult to get any sense of satisfaction or feel any pride in work that was so reduced that the worker felt like little more than a cog in a machine. There was little scope for individual discretion or ability. Nineteenth century office work was often little better and the bleakness has been described by numerous authors from Charles Dickens in Sketches by Boz to Herman Melville in Bartelby The Scrivener and in the early twentieth century by Sinclair Lewis in Our Mr Wrenn.
Karl Marx, described the way workers were alienated from their work:
What constitutes the alienation of labour? First that the work is external to the worker, that it is not part of his nature; and that, consequently, he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased... It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. Finally, the external character of work for the worker is shown by the fact that it is not his own work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person.
Work for the vast majority of people in the nineteenth century, offered neither intrinsic satisfaction nor a route to success. Salaries seldom depended on how hard a person worked and there was little chance of promotion out of the boredom of factory or lowly office work.
Industrialization upset the certainty that hard work would bring economic success. Whatever the life chances of a farmer or shop hand had been in the early years of the century, it became troublingly clear that the semi-skilled labourer, caught in the anonymity of a late-nineteenth-century textile factory or steel mill, was trapped in his circumstances—that no amount of sheer hard work would open the way to self-employment or wealth.
Despite all the reinforcement of the work ethic, workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often displayed a healthy disrespect for their work, not turning up to work regularly, not staying at boring jobs for long, and not obeying orders. So employers, unable to rely on a work ethic to motivate workers, had to find other ways to get them to work hard. A variety of professionals offered solutions to this problem, especially engineers, psychologists and sociologists.