Photography: Ben McLeod
Working from home is a whole new way of working — a revolution in industry, in society, in the way we live. Or is it? While making a living by sitting in a café with a frappucino and a two-way link to the cloud might be something your parents never dreamed of doing, the idea that you can ignore the corporate world and earn from home is actually about as modern as iron horseshoes and knitting needles. In fact, not only are today’s home-based tech workers more traditional than the average cubicle drone, they actually have a long way to go before their numbers come close to those of the good old days despite recent trends.
According to the US Census Office, the number of people who work at home more than two days a week increased between 1980 and 1990 by 56 percent from 2.2 million to 3.4 million.That’s a remarkable rise and one made all the more impressive by happening before the expansion of the Internet. In the decade following 1990, as communications improved and email replaced memos, the figures increased by a further 22.8 percent to reach 4.2 million people. By 2000, the Census Office reports, 3.3 percent of the working population was able to skip the commute for most of their workweek.
When One in Fourteen Worked from Home
But those are still significantly lower than the numbers in 1960 when almost 4.7 million people were earning their keep from home – a full 7.2 percent of the population. That number halved over the following twenty years, a decline which the Census Office puts down primarily to the closure of family farms and the movement of doctors and other professionals away from home offices and towards large shared practices.
But it wasn’t just the last of the small farmers and home-visiting doctors who were able to call their homes their workspaces in the 1960s. Some of the most important contributions to American culture were being produced in home offices even before the era of free love and one-way commutes to Southeast Asia.
Pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Oak Park, Illinois, for example, and you’ll be able to see not just the house in which the creator of the Prairie style lived from 1889-1909 but also the office in which he designed 125 of the country’s most important structures. Nor was his own home just a workplace. It was also an architectural laboratory on which he tested his design concepts and theories. Most home workers work in their house. Frank Lloyd Wright’s house was also his work.
That a creative professional like an architect should be able to avoid an office building is perhaps not surprising. Designers, painters, sculptors and other arty types tend to work alone, relying on their own inspiration to deliver their ideas. They rarely need the kinds of equipment that’s best supplied by large office buildings and having secretaries, assistants, sales staff and watercoolers around might even be distracting. Around 40 percent of artists are believed to work from home studios – or at least they do until children come along and claim the studio as their bedroom.
The Web’s Work from Home Industrial Revolution
According to the 1990 census though, almost half of all home workers were in the service industries, which included business and repair work, entertainment and recreation, and “other professional and related services.” By 2000, 1.9 million people were providing “professional services” from home – by far the most popular category – but there were also more than 42,000 people preparing food professionally in their own kitchens and over half a million cutting hair, giving massages and delivering other kinds of personal care. Interestingly, almost 5,000 people in the fishing, hunting and forestry professions worked from home at the start of the millennium too. You have to wonder about the size of their yards.
Even this variety might not be anything new. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Industrial Revolution was the movement to cities as factories became the shared workspaces of a new urban working class. But what were those new proletarians doing before the opening of the mills and the invention of automated looms that could fill factory floors and lop off children’s fingers? Some, as in early twentieth century America, would have been driving horses on farms but others would have been crafting from home. For women in particular, the loss of hand looms to the spinning jenny meant a shift away from home and family to cotton mills and hard-nosed bosses. For men too, the rise of the assembly line marked the end of the kind of sweating, hammering and hand-crafting of unreliable quality that could be done in a home workshop.
Interestingly, Peter Sweeney, Founder & CTO of semantic technology firm Primal Fusion, has described Web 3.0 as the Internet’s own industrial revolution, a time when the social connections of Web 2.0 gives way to the automated production of content. Wolfram Alpha, he says, is one example of the way in which information can be produced automatically and without the kind of work-at-home handicraft that predated Dickens and which now characterizes the Web’s co-working content producers.
That sounds unlikely. Easy communication is only going to increase the return to home-working and recession hit tech-types who have spent the last few months consulting from home will take some persuading to get back to the traffic jams when the economy does pick up. But today’s home-workers are now primarily tapping keyboards rather than driving tractors. They’re in the cities rather than in the dust fields of Oklahoma (although many of them, like those former agriculturalists, are also now in California). And unlike independent spinners and weavers, they find that they can compete easily with the productivity levels of factory and office-based employees.
Working from home then isn’t a new way of working. It’s a return to an old, traditional – and more enjoyable — way of working, and don’t let the Luddites tell you otherwise.