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Historical work patterns could shed light on today's employment dynamics

Studies from previous centuries have revealed atypical work practices that are somehow repeating themselves. Understanding this cycle can help improve employment and mobility.
Historical work patterns could shed light on today's employment dynamics
Employment in pre-industrial societies might have functioned differently from our own, but some striking similarities can help us rethink timeless concepts such as work, migration and homelessness. The EU-funded ATYPICALWORKPATTERNS (Atypical works in pre-industrial Europe. Pluriactivity, mobility and social identities) project investigated atypical work patterns in pre-industrial cities during the 17th and 18th centuries. It looked at different kinds of employment in the city of Rome during that time by examining comprehensive historical records.

One category of jobs investigated includes servants such as domestics, cooks and coachmen. The project documented how these job holders tended to take servant jobs in the second part of their lives or as a temporary occupation to facilitate horizontal mobility. Food retail represented another sector with ample employment opportunities, particularly since job holders did not require specific professional skills or expansive work tools. It was easier to become a vendor and sell someone else's food products or produce rather than being an apprentice or a master in a specific field.

The project explored the role of innkeepers who often transformed their own housing into an inn, as well as the role of ageing apprentices who never became masters in their field. It also looked at the challenges faced by migrants and seasonal workers such as agricultural labourers who came to the city, living together with up to 20 people in the same lodging.

Changing jobs meant changing professional sector for the most part, except in the food sector where one in five people remained in the field. In agriculture, although opportunities for labourers to shift sector were quite limited, a third of them stayed in the field. Interestingly, craftsmen never became food peddlers or food retailers, but shifted from crafts to domestic and other services.

The practice of having two or more different professional activities at the same time – i.e. pluriactivity – was seen in the cases of poorer job holders. Examples include a fruit seller who was also a grocer and an innkeeper who was also a fish seller. Often, soldiers in the military had second jobs such as tailors or cobblers.

ATYPICALWORKPATTERNS highlighted the tight relationship between the homeless population and the early modern city. It noted how people could have become homeless soon after their arrival in the city, find a home with a job, and become homeless again after having lost their job. This meant that professional and residential mobility was linked to the level of poverty and instability in the city.

Overall, the project described the work of the poor in a more in-depth manner than 'doing any job to survive'. The dynamics of integrating these individuals in the labour market share many points in common with modern society. Civil society and policymakers today would do well to examine the tight links between atypical workers, jobless or homeless people, and economic activities.

Related information


Work patterns, employment, mobility, pre-industrial, pluriactivity, social identities
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