Most people in history created their livelihood -- either by creating income or by actually producing the necessities of life with their own hand and toil -- within family or communal units. The idea of working at a job for a larger entity such as a corporation is extremely new in the grand swath of human history. In effect, almost all of the people who ever lived could in effect be classified as small business owners - this is even true today as most US employment comes still from sole proprietorships or small businesses.
Why is it useful to understand the history of work/labor?
This idea is very important to people living in modern societies because we have a view within our minds that is quite different from reality. Many people believe that:
Going beyond the present day and having at least a basic conception of the things our ancestors did to create substance and value in their ancient worlds will assist in opening up your mind to new opportunities, new ways of combining life with work, and new ways of creating value for others.
Hunting and Gathering - The First Sole Proprietorships
For most of our history, we hunted meat and gathered fruits and vegetables to feed our families and our very tight-knit communities. The lifestyle involved simply waking up with the sun, looking for food during the day, and resting in the evening. Bedtime was when it became dark and no hunter-gatherer had to plan very far ahead.
The first really interesting thing to think about when thinking about how hunter-gatherers provided for themselves is how there were almost never any intermediaries. Besides the possibility of occasional trade within tight-knit communities, hunter-gatherers had what can be considered a two-step method to getting what they wanted. In terms of purity of execution, this was the most basic/fundamental way of obtaining food and water - a hunter gather would literally expend energy in order to obtain the final product he/she sought.
The second interesting thing arises from the first - hunter-gatherers didn't create value for other human beings in order to achieve their goals. Of course, a hunter-gather might want to provide for his family and create value in that pursuit, but that's not what we mean here. What we mean is that hunter-gatherers either went to pick edible growings or killed animals in order to obtain sustenance. In that pursuit they did not serve any other human being in any way - they simply went out into the world and obtained what they needed from it. Contrast that with today's world where we almost exclusively have to earn our livings by creating value for other people, be they your employees or your customers (which are also your employers in a sense). We're not making a normative statement here - we're simply making a descriptive statement.
The third very interesting thing about thinking of the working hunter-gatherers performed is that they had a direct understanding of how their efforts and skills translated into the final product they obtained. Of course, hunter-gatherers likely had some sort of quasi-religious beliefs where they imbued objects, the weather, etc. with spiritualistic aspects and they might have relied on them to provide. However, that doesn't detract from the simple physics of hunting and gathering - every hunter-gatherer must have understood how it was their own physical efforts out in the world that were the proximate cause of their gain. They could have thought the ultimate cause came from the skies or from the tree spirits or elsewhere, but they surely understood that the proximate cause was their own effort - they surely understood that without themselves leaving their cave, picking growing, or killing an animal and dragging it home, their families would not have food to eat. Contrast that with today's modern corporate worker who works in a corporate office or campus and who has
These complex factors can include things such as
Yes, a person's well-being still depends on themselves and everyone must take responsibility for their lives - you must work hard and well so that you're able to do well in your job and in life. However, it is abundantly clear that the level of mental control that a person feels over his or her method of meeting wants/needs should have been far greater in the past than in today's complex and interconnected environment where so much of the economy is not visible or understandable by a single individual.
This understandability of relationship between soil and result could be psychologically beneficial to human beings on many levels. This isn't a psychology website and we're not purporting to have any theoretical or empirical underpinning for these statements, but it does seem to make sense that an individual who has a clear "a leads to b" understanding of the relationship between toil and result -- as opposed of "a to b to c to d to a BLACK BOX to e to f to g" understanding -- would have greater psychological comfort and less psychological stress.
In no way is above supposed to make you envy a hunter-gatherer - we live in a far richer world (both physically and mentally) than our ancestors and anyone who would want to give up today's peace, today's luxury, and today's comfort for a hungry dangerous life of basic subsistence and survival is a quite unusual person.
Agricultural Revolution and Farming
After many centuries of foraging, humans ended up farming. This happened gradually over the course of centuries as well, but the end result was the literal transformation of human life from a nomadic existence to a settled life that would be far more familiar to the modern person.
Although life transformed as well as the approach fro providing for it, humans still operated at a family or communal level - humans still remained in effect small business owners. The business changed, of course humans went from hunting and gathering to
Humans mainly operated as family units after the agricultural revolution according to current historical data with larger family-based communities existing for things that went beyond the family. In effect, each household ran a small farming business that employed the entire household from a relatively young age by today's standards.
Here people had a bit more complexity - their toil no longer immediately translated into value creation (eg. food to eat) but had to go through the intermediate step of waiting for the seeds to grow into plants. The same is true for livestock - farmers and heard had to wait for livestock to grow and spend time and energy on breeding instead of just going out into the wild to kill game.
We can see that from hunting and gathering to farming -- things which make up by far the vast majority of human existence -- we operated in very small-scale communities and were in effect creating our livelihoods within our family units. In effect, all hunter-gatherers and farmers until the Industrial Revolution turned farming into big business can be classified as small business owners in the very broad sense of the world. These individuals worked primarily for themselves and their families. Farmers in certain eras might have had to pay taxes to lords or barons or other elites, but these can be thought of as quasi-taxes. Almost all of humanity did not know the meaning of providing your labor (either in the form of physical or mental exertion) to another individual in return for some sort of payment - this was the case for many reasons, one of which was an economy that was so poor that it could not sustain such interactions in a meaningful way.
Artisans and Craftsmen - Sole Proprietors Throughout History
Beyond farming, there have been at times in history a class or artisans or craftsman. This class developed after the Agricultural Revolution as settled communities were needed in order for this class of people to arise. They mainly operated in larger cities and they ran what can be considered small businesses. The words "artisan" and "craftsman" is too narrow, however, as these individuals operated a large variety of business. These businesses including:
All of the above can also be classified as small businesses. They are more like the small businesses we think of today - instead of directly producing their own livelihoods, these artisans and craftsmen would set up shop and serve their communities. They would very likely have most of their family involved in the business and live either close by or directly above their shops.
The Modern Working World
Although the majority of US jobs still come from small businesses, most people think of work as something you do in a large-scale setting such as a corporation. Most people even aspire to such work.
This work is quite different than operating a small business because it involves providing your labor to a larger entity that you do not control and likely can never fully understand (not even the CEO of a large firm fully understand what's really going on). This creates a sort of "black box" effect where you provide your labor into a "black box" and then some income is given to you. You aren't totally sure about the actual value you're creating for the firm and you don't fully understand how your labor fits into the bigger puzzle.
There are of course many benefits working in jobs - most of these benefits come from a certain stability that is not always present in running a small business. However, there might be some psychological costs that affect a person in the following ways:
Working in a job might make a person blind to other small but very profitable opportunities where their skills might be used. They might not ever consider opening their own business, running their own website, consulting on their own, or providing value on a small scale. This is unfortunate because it is in such small setting where you are able to capture the full value of your efforts (instead of the employer capturing most of the value). This is really how people get rich today - most people will never get rich working for a job and saving a large portion of their income; the vast majority of people in our world get rich in entrepreneurial activities.
Some Examples of Employment Throughout History
Although most people worked for themselves throughout history, there were some interesting examples of employment throughout history. Here are a few: