Episode 593: Who Had The First Job? : Planet Money People have always worked. But the thing we think of today as a job — is actually a recent invention. On today's show, we go in search of the very first modern job.

Episode 593: Who Had The First Job?

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ZOE CHACE, HOST:

Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners, NPR has a new show coming out January 9. It is called Invisibilia. It is hosted by the very excellent Alix Spiegel from This American Life and NPR's science desk and Lulu Miller from Radiolab. And it is so good. It is a show basically about invisible forces that control human behavior. And you can subscribe to it wherever you subscribe to your podcasts. And it will also be on the radio starting January 9.

Well, well, well. What a sight for sore eyes. It's Adam Davidson? Is that right? Adam Davidson?

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Hey, Zoe. It's really good to be back in the studio. As you and everyone at the PLANET MONEY team know, I have been on book leave for a long time. I'm writing a book. It's a guide to the 21st century economy. And the whole idea is that the economy is changing a lot and people are kind of freaking out about those changes. They might be losing their jobs or feeling insecure in their jobs.

CHACE: And you came to us, back to PLANET MONEY, the other day all on fire with this big idea. You had, as you often do, a very big question. And this question is so simple, but it's, like, hard for me to wrap my head around, so just say the question.

DAVIDSON: The question is when was the first job? Who was the very first person to hold what we, like you and me and the modern world, think of when we think of the word job?

CHACE: The first job. So we think that people have always worked - always, forever since the beginning of time. Like, people were hunters and gatherers and that was working. And Euripides was a playwright and Ulysses was a captain and Cicero was a consul, which is a politician.

DAVIDSON: That's right. Jesus was a carpenter, sure. People have always worked. But that's not what I'm talking about. I am talking about the modern job. What people today mean when they say, oh, I'm applying for a job or I just got a job. It's not something you're born into. It's not what your mom or dad happened to do. It's something you have some choice over. It's also a discrete part of your life. There's the hours of the day where you go to your job and come home from your job. The job as we think of it today is a relatively modern invention. And that's what I wanted to figure out. Where did this thing come from and why does it exist?

CHACE: You want to start the show?

DAVIDSON: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Adam Davidson.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. And today on the show, our very own and beloved Adam Davidson goes on a quest - what was the very first modern job?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes. I'm on the right track, baby. I was born this way.

DAVIDSON: Before we get to the modern job, I first want to explain what I'm not talking about. Most people who have ever lived - almost everyone who's ever lived - did the same thing for a living. They were farmers. And to get a sense of why farming was not like a job in the modern sense as I'm using it, I called this guy at Rutgers, Jim Masschaele, he is a professor of medieval history. He studies economics and work in the Middle Ages. And he said, hey, I got a great idea. Let's meet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City. And he took me right away to this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It's from 1565.

JIM MASSCHAELE: There's an enormous wheat field that's in the foreground with workers that are harvesting the grain. And what you see the typical harvest implements of the period...

DAVIDSON: Those are scythes? Is that...

MASSCHAELE: Yep. Yep. The farmers are using scythes. And this man down here is using a sickle. And the women are taking the grain that's been cut by the men and they're bundling it up into sheaves.

DAVIDSON: They kind of look like little teepee tents or something.

MASSCHAELE: They look like teepee tents. Right. Exactly.

CHACE: People are doing work, like, that's working. They're harvesting grain and scything with scythes or whatever you call it. But you're saying these are not jobs.

DAVIDSON: Right. So part of the word job in the modern sense when we use it is that there is an element of choice; that you can choose this job or that job. And these people in this painting did not have any choice. There was no point in their life where they sat down with a guidance counselor who said, oh boy, I looked at your aptitude scores and I've talked to you about your interests and what you're into and I think you might be perfect for a medieval peasant. Perhaps that would be the best job for you. These people were farmers because they had to be farmers.

MASSCHAELE: Children who were socialized from the time that they were very little that, you know, if they were brought into the world in a peasant family or, you know, rural-dwelling family, that that was their lot in life and that they would kind of take on more responsibility for harder jobs and more difficult work as they grew older. But that that's what they would do. And there was no reason to think that you would, you know, change paths in life.

DAVIDSON: And it's not just choice I realized when I was talking to Jim Masschaele. The modern job is also - when you and I talk about our jobs, we know it's one part of our life. We talk about, like, work-life balance like that.

CHACE: Kind of.

DAVIDSON: Kind of. Yeah. You don't have - sorry.

CHACE: No (Laughter).

DAVIDSON: In the Middle Ages, Masschaele said nobody was talking about work-life balance.

MASSCHAELE: Basically, work defined your life. You woke up in the morning and you did whatever work was needed. And you worked through the whole day until it was dark. And then you went home. And you woke up the next day and you did the whole thing over again.

DAVIDSON: Nearly everybody, as far as we can tell, like 80 to 90 percent of people were farmers, peasants, serfs, slaves. And that's going back as far back in history as history is recorded - everywhere, all over the world. That's a lot of life for most people. And I think we can agree that's something very different from a modern job.

CHACE: Yes.

DAVIDSON: Working the land all the time until you die.

CHACE: Right.

DAVIDSON: But in talking to these historians, I did learn that things were different in the Middle Ages if you went to towns and cities. Though when you picture a city in the Middle Ages, do not picture, like, Chicago in the 1800s or Detroit in the early 1900s, like a bustling metropolis filled with economic possibility.

SHEILAGH OGILVIE: Towns were like deathtraps. It was so dangerous to live in towns.

DAVIDSON: That Sheilagh Ogilvie. She's at Cambridge University. She's one of my favorite economic historians. So she explained there was terrible sewage in these towns and cities. So many people were dying that they just couldn't get all the work done that needed to be done.

CHACE: That sounds pretty terrible. And that is where something like a job would start to come in because it would draw people to the cities and get the work done that needed to be done.

DAVIDSON: Yes. Exactly. People - usually they were young, like 14, 15 years old - they would leave the farm, go into the city and they would find something that looks an awful lot like a job. They'd be paid a wage. They'd have a boss. And one thing that was interesting is there were a lot more young women than young men because the young men were needed for work back on the farm. Women came to the cities and did all sorts of things.

OGILVIE: We'd seen women with jobs as spinners, as seamstresses. They would be carding wool in attics. They would be street sellers. They would be secondhand traders. They would be laundresses.

CHACE: So that sounds like jobs. Everything that was just listed, those are - those sound like jobs to me. But Adam, I know you. And this quest - this quest for the modern job is not over.

DAVIDSON: Yes. It would not be that easy. So yes, they had a lot of components of the modern job. They went to work in the morning. They got home at night. They got paid. But all of these people - all of these seamstresses and washerwomen and servants - they're missing a big thing. They had no stability. The modern job, as I think about it, protects you from the daily ups and downs of business. You are buffered. So if you're working in an office as a graphic designer for Coca Cola or you're a shipping clerk for some stationary manufacturer or you're a reporter at NPR, you don't wake up every morning and find out based on the weather or based on how your boss is feeling or based on the market whether you have a job that day or not. You have something of a long-term commitment. Obviously that commitment can change, but you have this buffering, this safety from the chaos of the marketplace. And also in the modern job, you don't have to be proving worth all the time. I mean, you maybe don't have your best performing day or week, month. But the modern job, you're not going to get fired. You just go in. You put in your hours. You're still going to get paid.

CHACE: That - I recognize this. I have seen, like, have you been into a Jamba Juice? You know what I'm talking about. When I go into a Jamba Juice, I feel like I order juice and there are a lot of people standing there who are not at their peak performance and it takes a while for the juice. But they still have a job.

DAVIDSON: Actually, that is a key component of the modern job - that people who have a modern job are not evaluated all that carefully. Economists call it the Jamba Juice theory. I mean, sorry, it's called the theory of the firm. There is decades of fascinating studies of how expensive it is for companies to monitor each worker. It's actually really efficient not to make sure each worker is maximally efficient. You just hire a whole bunch of people. You figure some will work really hard, some won't work at all and most people will be somewhere in the middle. So to get to the modern job I realized we need something else, something bigger than a family business. We needed the modern corporation, you know, a legal entity that allows a huge number of strangers - investors, managers, workers, tens of thousands of people - to come together to do business. And so for that answer, to find the first modern job, I next went to look at some 200-year-old records in the basement of an old stone house in Wilmington, Delaware.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TURNING)

DAVIDSON: Wow.

LUCAS CLAWSON: Take you inside. Our collections are actually a 38,000 linear feet, you know, just in the Manuscripts Department alone. We have over a million volumes in our collections.

DAVIDSON: So we're now in the archives of what many people believe is the first truly modern corporation - DuPont. It was founded in 1802 as an explosives manufacturer. Lucas Clawson, the staff archivist at the Hagley Museum and Library, is showing around. And he explains that when DuPont started, it was a lot like those medieval companies. It was a small firm run entirely by people with the last name DuPont.

CLAWSON: What you're looking at are ledger books - rows and rows of ledger books - some of them bound in leather, some of them bound in cloth.

DAVIDSON: And they're gorgeous. I mean...

CLAWSON: Oh, yes - absolutely.

DAVIDSON: ...They're really big. They're like what? - a foot and a half tall, maybe, and leather bound and in - with like gold leaf.

CLAWSON: Right.

DAVIDSON: Lucas says you can see the modern corporation and the modern job come into being in this long row of ledger books.

CHACE: We are here. This is it.

DAVIDSON: Yes.

CHACE: OK.

DAVIDSON: We are in the room where the first modern job is written down. I will not leave this room without it. I promise. This ledger opens wide. It is, of course, handwritten. There were no typewriters back in 1812. And this is like the accounts book. It was not written to be some historical record for 200 years later. It's just how they made money and what they spent money on. But the writing is so fancy and beautiful. It's, like, fancier than the calligraphy you see on a wedding invitation.

I will say it's beautifully written. I don't know that I can read it. (laughter) It's hard to read.

CLAWSON: Right. So this is the entry for a man named Matthew Savage.

DAVIDSON: So on November 21, 1812, he got paid $6. And again, beautiful handwriting, I can't read it. You're just used to it. So in those early days - in Matthew Savage's days - DuPont is becoming a modern corporation. It's still small. All the bosses are named DuPont. One interesting thing - well, there's a page for every employee in the company, how much they got paid. No one has a title. No one has a department. It just says Matthew Savage or Phil Daughertly or whatever. It doesn't say where they work, what they do. It doesn't say are they a foreman in the powder room or a bookkeeper in the central office.

CHACE: It doesn't need to, right?- because it's a small company at this point still. Like, everybody knows Matthew Savage. It's like hey, Matthew Savage, you know, how's your six or seven children or whatever, right?

DAVIDSON: Exactly, and Lucas and I are pulling these giant ledgers of the shelves from the 1850s, 1870s. And we're constantly looking - how did they refer to the people who work at the company. The company's getting bigger, more complicated. There are more and more workers. There's business around the world. The late 1800s, there's lots of wars, which is great for DuPont, the explosives manufacturer. But all the way through to 1902, there's the same basic thing - employees are just referred to by name. There are no titles, no divisions. There's no organization.

CHACE: Like an org chart.

DAVIDSON: Exactly. In fact, org chart - I came to realize on this quest that the org chart, it's this ridiculously boring thing with the boxes and the titles and the arrows that describes, like, how a corporation is supposed to function. But I came to realize that org chart is the revolution that symbolizes and creates the modern world we live in. And so in our quest, Lucas and I, finally - in a book from 1915 - we think we find it.

CLAWSON: Let me go back a couple pages here. Meeting number five - held at the office of the company, DuPont Company, Wilmington, Delaware - 11 am - logged October 11, 1915.

DAVIDSON: OK.

Lucas shows me the executive committee meeting of the DuPont Corporation, and there is in there a long list of names but also titles - divisions, departments, hierarchy.

Let's see, chief chemist, H.A. Marinus (ph) - number one. And then, G.B. Starlington (ph) is chief chemist number three. And then, H.J. Stock is chemist number one. So this is implying - this is a highly structured company at this point, it seems.

CLAWSON: No question.

DAVIDSON: Alright, Zoe, I'm calling it.

CHACE: Go.

DAVIDSON: We have found the modern job, the first instance of the modern job. By the time you chemist number one and chemist number two, it is clearly like a box to check. This is not about any particular person. This is not like oh, Matthew Savage and all the good and bad he brings to the job. There's a job called chemist number two. You could apply for that job. You could be talking to your supervisor about how one day maybe you could become chemist number two. And maybe after that, you'd get to be deputy supervising chemist number four or whatever it might be. By the time you have these titles and numbers separate from the people who hold them, we have the modern job.

CHACE: And this is the thing that I recognize. Like at NPR, we have something like this - you have editor one who becomes editor two, and then they become a supervising editor. Like, there's a progression. So now that I see this here, I want to know, like, who's the guy? Who's the guy with the first modern job?

DAVIDSON: So turns out there is a problem. There is a gap. We were reading these meeting notes from 1915 when there clearly is a full modern corporation. So we wanted to go back - 1914, '13, '12 - find when it was mentioned. There's just this hole in the shelf. The stuff I wanted wasn't there. We couldn't find it. Lucas explained the DuPont Company was going through massive changes in that period. Pierre du Pont bought out his cousins and converted it into an entirely new kind of company. He brought in all these nonfamily members, non-du Ponts to run things. They grew really fast.

They're building these organizations. They're so busy that no one has time to write it down. And so it's not until 1915 that they actually have time to both write down all the records and keep them in a way that allows a radio reporter to show up a hundred years later and find them. But somewhere between 1902 and 1915, someone came up with this modern corporate model with titles, subtitles, departments, middle managers - all of this. It's just nobody, as far as we know, wrote it down when it happened.

CHACE: OK. So that's great. But we can still pick a guy, right? Like, who is the first guy in the ledger from 1915, the first record that we have?

DAVIDSON: I'm going to call it, right now as of this moment, A.M. Greer, technical assistant in the smokeless-powder operating department is the first person - at least at this moment - ever named as a fully modern employee.

CLAWSON: At least in the executive committee minutes, yes.

DAVIDSON: So just be honest, how legitimate is it for me to say A.M. Greer is the first noted and modern employee in the world?

CLAWSON: Probably not very legitimate, honestly.

DAVIDSON: All right. So we're going for it. OK?

CLAWSON: Yeah, go for it.

DAVIDSON: (Laughter) All right.

CHACE: A.M. Greer.

DAVIDSON: A.M. Greer.

CHACE: Yes.

DAVIDSON: Technical assistant, smokeless-powder division. He is the first man in human history to hold a fully modern job.

CHACE: All right, Adam. So bring this home - why this quest? What is important about the first modern job, about A.M. Greer and about this moment?

DAVIDSON: So, as you know, I've been working on this book - by the way, I have no idea when it's coming out - but what it's about is how the economy is going through a massive transformation now. The nature of work, the nature of jobs, the nature of how we make a living in this world is changing dramatically, and I'm trying to understand that change. But what that made me realize is well, if we're changing into something, what are we changing from? We're changing from this model of the modern corporate job. And that got me thinking - where does that come from? How long has that been around? And that got me thinking - why did it come into being in the first place at all? So look, the truth is I don't know if DuPont really did create the first modern job. I'm fairly sure A.M. Greer is not actually the first guy with a fully modern job. And I know some listeners right now are writing emails about how, actually, railroads had the first modern job or universities had the first modern job. There's lots and lots of counter examples, which I'd love to hear. But the point was studying this concept of the modern job and the modern corporation, learning why it came into being. It was in response to a specific moment in history with specific challenges. We're now at a different moment of history with different challenges. And so we're turning into something new. The modern job was a blip, this period of time where you could work in the comfort of this large organization, be buffered from the market. That's just a moment that does seem to me to be going away.

CHACE: You know, like, when I think about the jobs that we have now, a lot of them don't have the stuff that you're talking about. Like, there's much more of a hustle going on. People are not necessarily in the box. They're not necessarily safe from the markets' ups and downs or, you know, like, freelancers or, you know, writers like you. You may not exactly have the modern job, right?

DAVIDSON: Right. And my book is about lots and lots of people who don't have modern jobs. In some ways, it feels like a harkening back to the Middle Ages, to the washerwoman who's hustling day-by-day to make just a few more pennies to survive. But in other ways, it feels like something very new. With Uber and Airbnb and all these new technologies, it feels like we're creating a new type of organization that has never existed before. At least, that's what I'm trying to figure out.

CHACE: That is, in fact, your job right now to figure out what's next.

DAVIDSON: That's my job right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE ENERGY")

FREE ENERGY: (Singing) Can you remember the moment? Did you forget that time? We were...

CHACE: As you know, we love to hear what you think of the show. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. Adam, I hope to hear a lot more from you in 2015 about your work.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Zoe. I am excited to be back for today. I'd also like to thank John Kelly. And I want to give a shout out to Alfred Chandler, the great business historian. People who know his work will know I took a lot of ideas from him.

CHACE: And a quick announcement before we go, Invisibilia, NPR's newest show, is premiering on January 9. And it is so good. You should definitely go subscribe when you get a chance. It's a show basically about sort of invisible forces that direct people's behavior. And it's hosted by Alix Spiegel - the great Alix Spiegel from This American Life - and Lulu Miller, who's also excellent from Radio Lab. Find it on iTunes, stitcher - where ever you get your podcasts, and it'll be out early next year. Our show is produced by Jess Jiang. I'm Zoe Chace.

DAVIDSON: I'm Adam Davidson. Thank you for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE ENERGY")

FREE ENERGY: (Singing) And now the people are breathing. The air is alive. It's coming out of the streetlight. Another battle is on for whenever we decide that there's nothing left to hide. This is all we got tonight. This is all we got tonight. We are young and still alive. And now the time is on our side.

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