Books to read if you’re looking for a brush-up on work history

2020 and 2021 have been striking indications of just how quickly — and dramatically — our work lives can change. The new work-from-home norms of this pandemic will almost certainly impact work practices for decades to come. Many companies have already declared that they’re permanently transitioning to more remote-heavy work.

But this year is just one example of many ways that technology, world or national events, the economy, and culture can shape and transform the way we work.

Work and career have certainly not always looked the way they look today. Humans have gone through many iterations of working life, and it can be fascinating to wander down our historical memory lane and realize how far we’ve come — and how we got here.

Read on for some of the most interesting books on the history of work.

The History of Work by Richard Donkin

Donkin takes thousands of years of human work history and tells the story of the steps along the way. It starts all the way back with the hunter-gatherers of history and moves forward from there, all the way up to now. A great book if you’re looking for a work history overview.

Labor in America: A History by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin

Dubofsky and McCartin’s book is not so much an overall history as a history of American labor specifically, from the country’s inception to the present. If you’re looking for a better understanding of American politics, economics, workers, and unions, this book is definitely worth a read.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari’s bestselling book has provided many with a sweeping understanding of the history of humankind. It is not focused specifically on work history, but it offers reflections on how our various stages of work practices evolved — and how they’ve shaped us in the process. An excellent read if you’re looking for a broader context for capitalism, our modern careers, and the economy.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World by Rachel Swaby

Swaby takes us through a history of women who worked in science. It adds a much needed feminine perspective — and acknowledgment — to our grasp on the history of those who spent their careers in science. It offers new understandings of not only science, but women, the workforce, and the ways our professions have evolved over the centuries.

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time by James Suzman

This is another great option for a sweeping survey of the history of work. It explores how work has evolved and how it has impacted society, the environment, culture, our sense of time, our values, our bodies, and equality. It’s a fascinating reflection on how humans have changed work and work has changed humans.

The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson

This book, written by historian E.P. Thompson, is pretty much what it sounds like. He explores the emergence, development, and identity of the English working class. It’s a fascinating and enlightening journey through an important chapter of English work history.

Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism by Bartow J. Elmore

This exploration of the rise of Coca-Cola — and how the company managed such an astonishingly large rise — provides a fascinating window into corporate history. It’s an important contribution to our understanding of capitalism and its history. And it tells us a great deal about work and corporate America in the 20th century.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone

If you’re looking for something a little more recent, Stone’s book is a great place to start. It dives into the worlds of some of the most successful companies of the century and explains just how drastically they are changing society. It’s an insightful perspective on the work and cultural evolutions that are taking place over the course of our own lives.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Wiener’s book takes us just a little ways back in work history — into the very recent decade of the 2010s. She tells the story of entering the world of Silicon Valley in her twenties. Through her experiences with the culture of the tech industry, we come to better understand the ins and outs (and shortcomings) of that world. An important read for anyone trying to understand the place that Silicon Valley holds in human work history.