Cottage Industry

Michael Metzger

Some 60 percent of workers report being either as productive or even more productive than they were working from the office. Are we seeing a 200-year-old trend being reversed?

Our workaday world looks very different than it did two months ago. Then again, the working world of two months ago looks very different than it did two centuries ago. Back then, well over three quarters of all people alive worked in various systems of slavery or serfdom.[1]

That meant less than a quarter of the working population had some say over how and where they worked. Most worked from home, explaining why work was called a cottage industry. The family home, or cottage, was the economic engine of Europe and America.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Beginning about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840, wage work transitioned to new manufacturing processes. This required factories, what William Blake called “the dark satanic mills.” Men began leaving home to go to work.

Two downsides resulted. The percentage of men working from home declined dramatically. Second, the percentage of injuries at work rose. Factories were filthy and often dangerous. Workers began to describe work as a “job,” the old English word for “criminal or demeaning activity” (a bank robbery is still called a “bank job”).

Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve seen three subsequent revolutions: Technological (1870-1920), Scientific-Technological (1940-1970), and the Information and Telecommunications Revolution (1975-2020).[2] Each one has further removed work from the home.

More downsides. According to a 2017 Gallup study, two-thirds of American workers are disengaged at work.[3] Over half of our full-time employees feel no real connection to their work. They tend to do the bare minimum. Another 16 percent are “actively disengaged.” They resent their boss, their work, and tend to gripe to co-workers and drag down office morale.

What if we’re not made for office work? What if most of us would prefer working from home, as most workers did up until 200 years ago? What if Covid-19 is kicking off the fifth revolution?

In late April, 42 percent of workers nationwide said they are working from home. Before the pandemic, it was nine percent. More importantly, 60 percent of workers report being either as productive or even more productive working from home than they were working in an office.

Facebook planned to shift to a remote workforce before the pandemic. CEO Mark Zuckerburg recently said the plan is to have 50 percent of the workforce working remotely in ten years. Across the boards, 24 percent of American workers say they’d like to work either entirely or more from home once the economy reopens.

That could be the end of the open-plan office according to Professor Michael Small, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Western Australia. He’s studied coronavirus outbreaks. Professor Small recommends that authorities curb all gatherings of more than 100 people. Facebook has canceled all gatherings with 50 or more people through June 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic could undermine one of the myths of Progressivism – how history never goes backward; only forward. Scripture disagrees. One of its central themes is return, the Hebrew word t’shuvah, repenting of our idolatries and returning to what we ought to be. I recognize everyone cannot work from home, but the pandemic might cause many to return to work as a cottage industry. That’d reverse a 200-year-old trend that’s had some downsides.

[1] Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 2

[2] Daniel Šmihula, “Long waves of technological innovations,” Studia politica Slovaca, Bratislava, 2011

[3] Jim Harter, “Employee Engagement on the Rise,” (Gallup, August 26, 2018) https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx

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3 thoughts on “Cottage Industry”

  1. Maybe…but I have a sense that something is missing when working remotely. I am a bit “zoomed out” as are many of my colleagues. Of course, I am very grateful that technology kept us in touch both at work and church. However, most of us had an intrinsic “ache” to actually be with others. The creative “door jamb” time seemed to disappear. Some of our best thinking occurs in informal, casual settings and not in official “think-tank” sessions. On the church front, there was a real yearning to be in the presence of one another. My sense is that we are hard-wired in our DNA to be “present.” God’s original intention was to expand his love (that he already enjoyed within the Trinity) to his created humans. That is, we were created to be in His presence. In fact, that is the predominant theme of Kingdom-living, enjoying the presence of God. It is something we can enjoy in the here and now and certainly in a less restricted form for all of eternity. The flight from cities is understandable at the times of disaster (9/11, COVID-19) but I think it will be short-lived as people continue to realize the advantages of being in the cultural presence of one another in spite of its non-sterile dangers.

  2. Thanks for this blog and the references. I’ve started a blog called “Home Economics” which looks at other trends (i.e. baking, gardening and home schooling) that are also gaining a resurgence.

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