This past Monday was Labor Day here in the US. For those of you not familiar with this US holiday it is meant to celebrate the American Labor Movement which fought for fair pay and safer work conditions. While there is still a lot more we can do from the perspective of fair pay, we have made a ton of progress from the perspective of safer working conditions.
In 1913 the death rate of industrial jobs in the U.S. was 61 per 100,000 workers. In 1997 that number dropped to 4 per 100,000 workers (Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Improvements in Workplace Safety — United States, 1900-1999, 1999).
Even in one of the more dangerous jobs that still exists today…coal mining…the death rate has declined significantly.
Obviously regulations (fought for by the American Labor Movement) and improvements in technology have helped to drop the death rate.
In addition to improvements in technology and new regulation we also need to consider the shift in the type of work we are doing today. In the early 1900s there were a lot more people working in factories and doing manual labor. Today many people are working as knowledge workers and sit in front of a computer. These jobs pretty much eliminate the risk of injury and obviously death as well.
The graphs below illustrate the transition in the type of work we are doing. Note the steady increase in service jobs and the sharp decline in goods producing jobs (primarily driven by manufacturing).
Does this mean this new type of work is not doing any harm to us? On the surface the answer may seem like a resounding yes, but let’s dig a little deeper.
One of the more obvious differences between the type of work we are doing today versus 100+ years ago is the amount of energy we burn while at work.
The decrease in energy expenditure while working pretty much mirrors the decrease in goods producing jobs in the graph above.
This cut in energy expenditure from work has some drastic downstream effects when we also look at average caloric intake in the US over the same time period.
We are consuming 500+ calories more a day, and burning 500 calories less from our jobs, that ends up being a surplus of 1000+ calories of energy!
In addition to the energy expenditure piece we need to consider the other aspects of health that our occupations affect.
Today we live in a society where you can do virtually anything 24/7. That means there have to be workers providing these services and working outside the normal 9AM-5PM work day. While I searched for hard data to back my hunch that the number of people working outside the normal 9AM-5PM workday, I couldn’t come across much. What I did find was that there were about 15.9 million night-shift workers in the US in 2021.
We know there was a sharp uptick in night shift working during the industrial revolution because someone needed to be there to run the machines 24/7…especially prior to the advancements in technology we have today (ie robots that can fetch things from warehouses and run assembly lines etc). You would imagine that due to the advancement in technology the need for night shift workers decreased.
Maybe that is true in manufacturing but as the world became more interconnected we needed to work with people in various locations around the world, so even more knowledge workers were needed to work the night shift.
Now as we shift into the “gig economy” when I may want an Uber at 1AM or order my fast food from the 24/7 McDonalds on DoorDash, someone has to be working to provide those services to me.
So my hunch is that the demand for people to work night shift jobs has increased over the past several decades.
In addition the advent of technology has allowed the knowledge worker to work 24/7 as well. The number of people working 9AM-5PM jobs who also work after hours has to have increased as well. Again it’s hard to find clear data on this but as a software engineer who works remotely I know many colleagues who work after hours well into the night…including myself.
All this to say that work today can also disrupt our circadian rhythms and sleep and that can have massive negative effects on our health and keep us from reaching our goals.
The final negative impact of modern day jobs on our health has to do with stress. If you were to go to work in a coal mine 100 years ago there were probably several acute stressors that occurred during your day that had dire consequences…ie death. However, if you made it to the end of your work day the stress was over and done with…at least till the next day.
With today’s work, stress can persist not only acutely but chronically. From 2009-2020 there was a rise in work related stress…of course 2020 was a stressful year for a lot of reasons which affected many people’s jobs so that number is likely inflated
Nonetheless, more stress is not a good thing for our health as I spoke about in this post.
The modern workplace has certainly improved in terms of deaths, however I am not sure how much better we are from a health perspective due to the downstream effects of today’s occupations. Modern occupations introduce many ancestral mismatches into our lives namely in the areas of physical activity, sleep and circadian rhythms, and stress. I am not suggesting we go back to ancestral ways of working if you don’t want to. I think it is possible to be healthy and still work a modern occupation.
The hard part is that we need to do some work to make sure we can combat the mismatches introduced by our modern day occupations. I have already written extensively on how to go about this, but in short we need to exercise AND incorporate a lot of low level movements, practice good sleep practices and adopt a solid sleep schedule, and incorporate stress management practices into our lives. By doing so we can alleviate some of the ancestral mismatches introduced by our modern day occupations.
We need to fight for our own personal health just like the American Labor Movement fought for our working conditions. I try to enable you to do just that with the content I produce on a weekly basis. If you want to become more empowered to fight for your health, sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will send you content each week that will help you add more weapons to your arsenal to better combat the ancestral mismatches of today’s modern world.
Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Improvements in Workplace Safety — United States, 1900-1999. (1999, June 11). CDC. Retrieved September 6, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4822a1.htm