The Story of Work A New History of Humankind Jan Lucassen

Publication date:
27 Jul 2021
Yale University Press
544 pages: 235 x 156mm
18 color + 9 b-w ilus. + 3 figs. + 6 maps
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The first truly global history of work, an upbeat assessment from the age of the hunter-gatherer to the present day

We work because we have to, but also because we like it: from hunting-gathering over 700,000 years ago to the present era of zoom meetings, humans have always worked to make the world around them serve their needs.

Jan Lucassen provides an inclusive history of humanity’s busy labor throughout the ages. Spanning China, India, Africa, the Americas, and Europe, Lucassen looks at the ways in which humanity organizes work: in the household, the tribe, the city, and the state. He examines how labor is split between men, women, and children; the watershed moment of the invention of money; the collective action of workers; and at the impact of migration, slavery, and the idea of leisure.

From peasant farmers in the first agrarian societies to the precarious existence of today’s gig workers, this surprising account of both cooperation and subordination at work throws essential light on the opportunities we face today.

More about this title

Story of Work 

Jan Lucassen is an honorary fellow at the the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam where he founded the IISH Research Department. He is the author of numerous books including Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience and Global Labour History.

“Whereas traditional histories often present drudges and slaves as anonymous extras in the dramas of luminaries, passive in the face of their unhappy fates, Mr Lucassen affords them attention and agency.”—Economist

“Readers...will find much to enjoy and fascinate on the level of brute historical fact if not on that of overarching theme.”—James Marriott, The Times ‘Book of the Week’


“Full of colour, surprise and human warmth...Exhausted yet enlightened, any reader reaching the end of Lucassen’s marathon will understand that the problem of work runs far deeper than politics, and that the grail of a fair society will only come nearer if we pay attention to real experiences, and resist the lure of utopias.”—Simon Ings, The Daily Telegraph


“Absolutely fascinating...The breadth of the scholarship is breathtaking, but the prose is clear and sometimes leavened by dashes of dry wit...Lucassen’s own compassion shines through this magisterial book.”—Christina Patterson, The Guardian

“Jan Lucassen’s fascinating book explores the ways in which humanity organises labour across the world, and how labour relations have evolved over time….Lucassen challenges those across the political spectrum to rethink how we value and define work.”—Caitlin Allen, Reaction

“Pleasingly diverse, thoughtfully considering case studies from a range of cultures and the divergent experiences of men and women around the world”—BBC History Magazine

“Lucassen’s diligent empirical study quietly puts grand ideologies and theories of work in their place...Work has evolved over time, and Lucassen gives a compelling and comprehensive account of that evolution.”—Lyndsey Stonebridge, New Statesman

“Lucassen is a lively writer with an eye for the arresting detail.”—The Week ‘Book of the Week’

'An encyclopaedic and opinion-packed tour de force ranging over millennia. We may need to work to be useful, to give our lives meaning, to cooperate and for our self-esteem; but some ways of organizing work are so much fairer and more rewarding than others. A brilliant book.’—Danny Dorling, author of Slowdown

‘If being forced to work feels bad, it is nowhere near as bad as having no worthwhile work to do. Lucassen’s masterly book shows how the human need for fulfilment in shared tasks has confronted technological and social forces that pit us against each other in a struggle to appropriate the material rewards of work and the esteem that comes with it.’—Paul Seabright, author of The Company of Strangers

‘This magisterial study distils a life’s work to make sense of labour relations over millennia. Lucassen probes the degrees of freedom under which people have created meaning, sought cooperation and demanded fairness in households, plantations, workshops and factories across the globe.’—Eileen Boris, author of Making the Woman Worker

‘Lucassen brilliantly anchors world history in human agency through work. In every era, he finds the household as the backbone of work – the site of domestic labour and the source of social labour. Throughout, he illustrates the principles of meaning, cooperation and fairness in work. A memorable volume.’—Patrick Manning, author of A History of Humanity