Prior to industrialisation in the 19th century, most people worked multiple jobs to piece together a living.
The Taylor Report, the UK government’s recent major review of modern work, paid particular attention to the “gig economy”. This is the idea that the traditional model of work – where people often have a clear career progression and a job for life – has been upended. It encompasses “self-employed” Uber drivers to the web developer freelancers and it allows workers more freedom – but also denies them benefits and protective regulation.
While it might seem that long-established ways of working are being disrupted, history shows us that the one person, one career model is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to industrialisation in the 19th century, most people worked multiple jobs to piece together a living. Looking to the past uncovers some of the challenges, benefits and consequences of a gig economy.
The diaries of three men in 18th-century Britain that I have found give a fascinating insight into how middle class people – the supposed beneficiaries of today’s gig economy – made multiple employments work. Edmund Harrold, a resident of Manchester in the early 18th century was a barber by training and title. He rented a small shop, shaved customers’ heads, bought and sold hair, and crafted wigs. In the hours unfilled by this he worked as a book dealer, and eventually as an auctioneer, selling various items in alehouses within Manchester and in outlying towns. He lent out money when he had it, earning 10% interest on his holdings. [ … ]