If you measure the rise in house prices over the years, you find the closer homes are to the GPO, the more they’ve risen, with prices in outer suburbs having risen least.

But if WFH becomes lasting and widespread, that decades-long trend could be reversed. If you don’t have to spend so much time commuting, why not live further out, where bigger and better homes are more affordable and there’s more open space?

Maybe apartment living will become less attractive compared to living in a detached house with a garden, with a corresponding shift in relative prices. And if we’re going to be working at home as a regular thing, maybe we need an extra bedroom to use as a study.

It’s interesting to contemplate. But before we get too carried away, let’s remember one thing: in human history, there’s nothing new about working from home. Indeed, when you think about it you realise humans have spent far more centuries working at home than not.

We’ve been working from home – not having a factory or office to go to – since we were hunters and gatherers. That was all the millennia before the beginning of farming about 10,000 years ago.

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In all the years before the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1760s, most people earned their living from farming, and farming was done next to – and sometimes inside – the hovels of peasant workers or, in less feudal times, the homesteads of farmers.

You know that in Europe and other cold climes, families lived with their farm animals during winter. Much work would have been done in nearby sheds.

In the Middle Ages, most tradespeople worked at home. Blacksmiths, carpenters, leather workers, bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers and ale brewers made their goods in their homes and sold them from their homes.

This was work suitable for women as well as men, and it could be combined with childcare and other, income-earning farm work.

In the early days of capitalism, from the 1600s to until well into the Industrial Revolution, much use was made of the “putting-out” system, as The Economist magazine describes in a recent issue.

“Workers would collect raw materials, and sometimes equipment, from a central depot. They would return home and make the goods for a few days, before giving back the finished articles and getting paid,” it says.

“Workers were independent contractors: they were paid by the piece, not by the hour, and they had little if any guarantee of work week to week.”

Is this ringing any bells?

Being economists, the magazine notes that when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, it was perfectly common to work from home. Smith famously described the operation of the division of labour in pin-making – not in a dark satanic mill but a “small manufactory” of perhaps 10 people, which could well have been attached to someone’s house.

Eventually, however, the putting-out system gave way to full-on manufacturing in factories – despite the resistance of the machine-smashing Luddites who preferred the old ways.

The move to factories was an inevitable consequence of the development of bigger and better machines in the unending pursuit of economies of scale. Workers moved from the farm to the factory and then, as technological advance continued, from highly automated factories to city offices and, eventually, sitting at a desk staring at a screen.

In the Middle Ages, most tradespeople worked at home. Blacksmiths, carpenters, leather workers, bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers and ale brewers made their goods in their homes and sold them from their homes.

It’s economic development and the pursuit of ever-greater material prosperity has opened the geographic divide between home and work. Which is not to say that further technological change – including the advent of Slack and Zoom – can’t make it possible to bring them back together for many, though obviously not all, workers. Provided, of course, that’s what workers and, more significantly, bosses see as being to their advantage.

Here, too, it’s worth remembering a bit of history. The Economist notes that, according to some economic historians, workers were exploited under the putting-out system. Those who owned the machines and raw materials enjoyed enormous power over those whose labour they used.

It was difficult for workers spread across the countryside to team up against the bosses and their take-it-or-leave-it offers. Crammed into a big factory, however, workers could more easily join together to ask for higher wages. Trade unions started to grow from the 1850s onwards.

Happy speculation aside, there’s no certainty how much working from home will take on. If it does, there’s a risk that will be because bosses see it as a new way to cut costs. That really would be turning the clock back.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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