Work and Workers in the Age of Productivity: Europe 1945-1980s

Course Material 2024/25
Worker preparing a warp from nylon yarn.

Western Europe’s postwar era was marked by deep social, economic and political transformations, many of which were made possible by rapid economic growth and continued demand for workers. As the nature of work and workers changed across Europe, so did its societies. Millions left the countryside for new jobs in growing cities; women entered formal employment in unprecedented numbers, and migrants from across Europe and the wider world were invited to fill the gaps. But it was also work itself that was changing: factories and offices embraced new technologies, and with them changing work hierarchies; management became a science and governments looked for ways to measure the quantity, and productivity of work. In addition, work became central to the postwar social contract – the passport to the expanding welfare state, and at the heart of the grand bargain between labour, capital and the state that characterised what some have called ‘Europe’s Golden Age.’

This paper will ask why the category of work became central to this era, and with that consequences. Work will be used as thread to explore postwar Western Europe from multiple angles, and to reflect on the myths of the ‘Golden Age’. It will investigate how work became a nexus of political action; and how Europe’s cultures in the age of affluence were linked to ideas of modernisation, productivity and the quest for stability in the shadow of the Cold War. It will place Europe in a wider context of global transformation, including decolonisation and a changing global order. It will play close attention throughout to the tensions of gender, race and status that permeated ideas and practices of work. Drawing on a burgeoning literature from across the continent, it will also explore how the culture of work differed and evolved in various parts of the continent, shaped by historical legacies, religion and politics.

The paper will also look at how work was contested – from the emergence of movements for workers’ self-management to the ‘refusal of work’– and how the economic crises, and the return of mass unemployment in the 1970s shattered confidence and raised the prospect of the ‘end of work.’ The paper will make extensive use of contemporary reflections and critiques of European society in a wide range of materials, from political tracts to art manifestoes and contemporary film. All the core literature will be in English, but students will also have the opportunity to explore further historiographies in a range of European languages.

Work and workers will cut across social, economic, intellectual, cultural and political histories, allowing students the freedom to engage with different perspectives and locations in their 4 essays and in the exam. Essay and Exam questions will seek to span several themes, helping students engage with paper as a whole

Page credits & information

Image - Preparing a Warp from Nylon Yarn, British Nylon Spinners, by Maurice Broomfield, 1964, printed 2007,  Victoria & Albert Museum. Museum no. E.3730-2007. © Estate of Maurice Broomfield

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.