Careers: An Invention of the 20th Century

April 27, 2009

Building The Hive

Recently I saw the movie “Into The Wild.” There were many quotes that stuck out to me, but this one was most memorable:

“Careers are an invention of the 20th century.”

Up until the 20th century, our work model was mostly one of small business, handed down from generation to generation. Farming, smithing, and specialty stores were primarily the way we sustained ourselves.

Of course there has always been the government to employ people, but even this was a much trimmer version of the bulky and bloated bureaucracy we find today.

What Happened?


In a word, railroads. Railroads in the late nineteenth century, like the Internet in the late twentieth, opened up the world to possibilities that could never have been considered previously. And like the Internet, entire businesses and industries sprang into existence simply because of the expanded possibilities and connections.

Around the turn of the century, commerce and production began to explode. With the invention of the assembly line, industrialists began to streamline their operations to work faster and produce more, which in turn required more hands.

Time and scheduling became much more precious and important. The need for resources, particularly steel – and in turn, coal – created some of the most powerful and influential capitalists in the history of the world, men and women who’s influence is still very much alive today.

These capitalists – Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford, to name a few – forged ahead, building their empires. To build these empires, they needed help. Lots of help.

Spacebankers on ThisHumanEpic.Com

Building Empires

They moved into cities like Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and built giant buildings in central locations where people could come to work.

And this was revolutionary. Farmers and barbers and blacksmiths began leaving their trades to move into the cities to work in factories and offices for better and more stable wages.

pyramidSomething amazing was happening. Competition in this new era was creating jobs at an unprecedented rate. New technologies were spawning new businesses which in turn created more jobs and more opportunity. The world, especially the United States, was exploding, screaming into the future at incredible rates of speed and direction.

And the men and women at the top of these pyramids got richer and more powerful.

The Tipping Point

As this new world grew, many people’s lives were changed for the better. These corporations were overall a good thing. Yes, there was abuse (child labor, poor working conditions, etc.) but with any large movement there is evolution and refinement.

By the 1950’s, the vast majority of the United States had adjusted and conformed to the industrial revolution. It was a time of prosperity and abundance for many. At large, the population had been transformed from scattered farmers and sole proprietors to offices with middle management.

It was a radical and speedy shift for a society that had been doing things one way for so long. And while on the surface things looked like they were going well, there was something more sinister happening in the dark halls of those downtown steel towers, and more importantly, in the fabric of our lives.