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Since the founding of the Americas, many things have changed, but the need to earn a living remains constant. And in some ways, the modern employment landscape is similar to that which existed in the 1700s. For instance, healthcare, publishing, farming, and finance were among the biggest industries of the 18th century, and they remain so to this day.

Across nearly every industry, however, there can be instability, for reasons ranging from inflation to the public health crisis. Modern workers are experiencing job-related uncertainty firsthand, thanks to high unemployment numbers in the wake of coronavirus. The numbers are unprecedented: According to NPR, more than 30 million Americans filed for unemployment in just six weeks due to COVID-related job loss. Those rates even surpass those seen during the Great Depression, but life was a little bit different in the 1700s. Let’s take a look at the ways in which the modern employment landscape differs from the process of looking for work in the 18th century.

In-Demand Jobs of the 1700s

While workers in the 18th century also had to deal with unemployment, it was a different type of situation. And work was plentiful, especially in England, where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally altered modern life, impacting commerce, manufacturing, employment, and more.


As rural areas experienced rising unemployment rates, workers traveled to cities, seeking factory and manufacturing jobs. Early factories were known as “manufactories,” and some of the earliest were established in the 1770s in Nottingham and Cromford, where more than 600 workers spun cotton into thread. Although working conditions weren’t always ideal, 18th-century job seekers were willing to travel long distances to secure a job, even just seasonal work.


And when they lost it, they weren’t entitled to unemployment benefits. Workers in the 1700s simply secured another job, sometimes in a different industry altogether. At the time, it was common to meet transient workers with experience working in diverse industries including shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, and general labor.

Interviews and Onboarding: Then and Now

No matter the industry, job seeking was a crucial component of life in the 1700s and remains so to this day. Job seekers in the 21st century have a complex world to navigate that our ancestors could never have imagined, consisting of cover letters, resumes, and interview preparation. Yet some parts of the interview process remain fundamentally unchanged since the 1700s.


For instance, employers still gauge personality and behavior, seeking out a particular type of worker. Behavioral interview questions are open-ended and situational, and they can help employers learn more about their applicants. It’s likely that 18th-century employers used similar tactics in order to gauge one’s trustworthiness.


Of course, there was no way to verify references in the 18th century unless one was in a small town. So trust played a big part in the job search process as well. Workers were judged more on their merit and ability than by the credentials listed on their resume, from work history to college credits and personal references.



The Role of Education

Only a select few of society’s elite earned a college degree in the 1700s, yet it’s a crucial aspect for many modern jobs. As of 2019, more than 35% of Americans have completed at least four years of college. In 2020, it’s generally accepted that those with a college degree earn more money than those without.


However, one can still make a comfortable living without a college degree, much as our 18th-century ancestors did. Modern workers only need to look to trade-based occupations to find the best paying jobs, no degree required. For example, plumbers can earn upwards of $53,000 per year, and the field is projected to grow faster than average into the near future.


However, it’s important to note that trade-based work can be arduous, and certification or training may be necessary in order to break into the field. The good news is that certification and licensing typically come with protection, such as basic workers’ rights, which weren’t typically afforded to workers in the 18th century.

Workers Rights and Public Health

Modern workers often take the 8-to-10 hour workday, with weekends off, for granted. Many of today’s workforce even receive further benefits, including paid sick leave and retirement funds. Those looking for employment in the 1700s could barely have imagined the benefits and protections that we take for granted now.


One of those protections involves child labor. Children under the age of 16 weren’t subject to employment restrictions in the U.S. until 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed. Prior to then, a large chunk of the national workforce was made up of children who were paid low wages and afforded no worker protections.


Had the coronavirus pandemic hit in the 1700s, the century’s unprotected workers would have effectively been sitting ducks. Those looking for new employment opportunities in a post-COVID world should consider the importance of healthcare benefits and workers’ rights protections.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.