Archive | June, 2013

The Invention of the “Employee”

3 Jun

The toaster. The hula-hoop. The employee. They are all inventions. The following excerpt is from Gary Hamel’s book The Future of Management.


While it’s easy to smile at the misguided beliefs of those who came before us, can we be sure that our management beliefs wont appear equally archaic a decade or two hence? For example, most 21st-century managers seem to regard the notion of an economically dependent and willingly biddable “employee” as an immovable cornerstone of corporate life. Yet the idea of spending your entire life working for someone else would have seemed strange, even repugnant to most Americans living before the Civil War. In the 19th century, America was a “republic of the self-employed,” as Roy Jacques so aptly puts it. Nine in ten white, male citizens worked for themselves. “Manufactures” as the census labeled them, typically employed no more than three or four individuals. Most of the folks who labored in tanning sheds, bakeries, and smithies dreamed of one day setting up on their own, and many would eventually do so. Having escaped Europe’s economic feudalism, America’s 19th-century artisans and laborers would have been dismayed to learn that millions of their progeny would one day become permanent “wage slaves.” 

Fact is, the concept of the employee is a recent invention, not some timeless social convention. Indeed, one doesn’t have to be a Marxist to be awed by the scale and success of early-20th-century efforts to transform strong-willed human beings into docile employees. The demands of the modern industrial workplace required a dramatic resculpting of human habits and values. To sell one’s time rather than what one produced, to pace one’s work to the clock, to eat and sleep at precisely defined intervals, to spend long days endlessly repeating the same, small task-none of these were, or are, natural human instincts. It would be dangerous, therefore, to assume that the concept of “the employee” – or any other tenet in the creed of modern management – is anchored on the bedrock of eternal truth. 

Gary Hamel, The Future of Management, page 130.