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Origins of the Modern Career

Author(s):Mitch, David
Brown, John
Leeuwen, Marco H.D. van
Reviewer(s):Maloney, Thomas N.

Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

David Mitch, John Brown, and Marco H. D. van Leeuwen, editors, Origins of the Modern Career. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004. xiii + 342 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-3496-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas N. Maloney, Department of Economics, University of Utah.

The study of careers — the development of individuals’ work lives through several stages over long periods of time — presents a substantial challenge for any historian or social scientist. The relevant models and explanatory frameworks are complex, and the necessary evidence is hard to assemble. In this volume, eighteen authors take up the challenge. The resulting papers vary widely in geographic setting, time period, and method, and in the end there are few general conclusions that cut across many of the chapters. Nonetheless, this book will be a valuable resource for researchers interested in the particular labor markets studied here. It will also be a useful reference for those entering into the study of careers, who might want a broad survey of the types of work being done on this topic.

The book is the result of a conference on “Employment Security and Career Mobility in Historical Perspective,” held in Luxembourg City in June 2001. It contains fifteen chapters: an introductory essay, two broad “methodological” chapters on theoretical frameworks and quantitative evidence, and twelve chapters that examine careers in particular labor markets.

In their introductory essay, John C. Brown (Clark University), Marco H.D. van Leeuwen (International Institute for Social History) and David Mitch (University of Maryland – Baltimore County) stake out a broad definition of “career.” In particular, they want this term to include the development of the work lives of blue collar and less-skilled workers, not just professionals or the highly trained. Various chapters in the book examine the careers of farm laborers, police officers, railroad car workers, female graduates of Cambridge, and Ph.D.-holding chemists, so this desire for breadth is certainly fulfilled. In addition to the variety of occupations examined, there is substantial breadth in geographic setting (Britain, Italy, Germany, the U.S., Sweden, Canada, and Argentina are all represented), as well as in period of study (ranging from the 1760s to the 1970s). A great variety of types of evidence are exploited, from very large data sets to farmers’ log books and individual biographies.

The two “methodological” chapters are both valuable introductions to the study of careers. Laura J. Owen’s (DePaul University) “An Economic Perspective on Career Formation” provides a clear discussion of basic economic models of human capital investment, training, and turnover, which will be helpful to non-economists and even to economists who are new to the study of these issues. Ineke Maas’s (Utrecht University) chapter on “The Use of Event-History Analysis in Career Research” similarly provides a useful survey of the terrain in empirical sociological research on career mobility.

The twelve remaining chapters are divided into three sections: “The Creation of Formal and Informal Structures,” “The Influence of Gender,” and “The Influence of Industrialization and Economic Modernization.” This thematic structure is fairly loose, however. We are really being presented with twelve fairly self-contained studies of the determinants of the movement of workers through stages in their work lives. The great variety of contexts, methods, and strengths of the various chapters makes it unwieldy to comment on all of them, so I will remark on a few that stand out in particular ways.

The contribution from Andrew Miles (University of Manchester) and Mike Savage (University of Manchester), “Constructing the Modern Career, 1840-1940,” does perhaps the best job of connecting the study of particular labor markets to broader themes in labor and social history. Miles and Savage use firm-level records from the Great Western Railway, Lloyds Bank, and the British Post Office to examine intra-generational and inter-generational occupational mobility. Their main focus is on matters of class: Did the development of internal promotion lines in these organizations allow for broad mobility from, say, manual to managerial positions? The answer is no. Rather, they find that there was substantial stratification in career prospects that paralleled cross-sectional, point-in-time stratification across occupations. They also emphasize the development of promotion paths and rewards along them as methods of control rather than as compensation for skill.

Two pieces — Haia Shpayer-Makov’s (University of Haifa) history of the careers of policemen in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and Maria Silvia Badoza’s (University of Buenos Aires) study of careers in the Argentine printing industry in roughly the same era — are excellent examples of the interaction of hiring, training, and turnover costs in the shaping of internal promotion and occupational mobility. Shpayer-Makov argues that expensive background checks, extensive on-the-job training, and high returns to experience with one’s co-workers created strong incentives for the British police force to use promotion and benefits as ways to attach workers. In the Argentine printing case, new technology (the introduction of the linotype) threatened to greatly reduce training requirements in the industry and thereby undermine union bargaining power. At the same time, union strength was buoyed by the fact that a brief shutdown of magazine and newspaper production could be devastating to the firms involved. In the end, the compositors’ unions were able to establish control over the entry of workers into the new, less-skilled linotype positions and maintain their central role in the industry.

In contrast to the small and often firm-specific data sets used in many of the chapters, Maas and van Leeuwen (in “Occupational Careers of the Total Male Labour Force during Industrialization: The Example of Nineteenth-century Sweden”) draw on a complete-count data set for the Sundsvall region of northern Sweden, for essentially the entire nineteenth century. The data set includes information on birth, death, marriage, residential change, and occupational change for over 42,000 men. Using this remarkable resource, Maas and van Leeuwen find that industrialization in this region was primarily characterized by lateral mobility, as farm laborers entered into unskilled manufacturing jobs. Neither upward nor downward mobility became markedly more common over the century, though the age profiles of these transitions changed somewhat.

This sampling provides some sense of the variety of topics examined in this book. All of the chapters are clearly written and careful in their treatment of evidence. The primary shortcoming of the book is simply the lack of connective tissue between these chapters. At the same time, the book’s greatest value is as an introduction to the many ways in which careers can be studied.

Thomas N. Maloney is an associate professor in the Department of Economics, University of Utah. His article “Ghettos and Jobs in History: Neighborhood Effects on African American Occupational Status and Mobility in World War I-Era Cincinnati” is forthcoming (2005) in Social Science History.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII