Working lives: choices, opportunities and that beyond our control

As I reflect on a tumultuous year in which Your Local History has gradually grown from a idea into a successful business; in which my old career was shattered by the spending review; in which I have spent many months in an ‘un-chosen’ job and finally achieved my longstanding dream of working full time in an archive; I have come to reflect on how lucky I have been to have had so many career opportunities – and how the working lives of my ancestors differed. 

Leaving aside the fact that, until relatively recently, as a female I would have had a very different education – if much at all – I have already had a far more changeable career than many of my ancestors, and much more choice over its direction. The old adage ‘a job for life’ has had little relevance to my personal experiences.

A country girl to the core, my first job was working for a local lady who wanted help to muck out her horses. It is perhaps the only job I have held which would be immediately recognisable to generations past. There are many in my tree who worked as stable hands, ostlers, horsemen or teamsters (driving a team of horses on a farm) who would have been as familiar with horse muck as I became! 

Later I worked in a veterinary surgery as a ‘Saturday girl’. My ancestors would have been acquainted with some form of veterinary medicine, even back as far as the years BC. However, the rapid advancement of the profession since the end of WWII means that injuries and diseases which would once have been fatal, even endemic, were treatable and preventable by the time of my employment. The face of veterinary medicine had changed a great deal within a century. For the history of veterinary science, try, a blog I discovered while researching for this piece. 

My last foray into what might be called a ‘rural’ career was my time at a Farm Park where I manned reception and the gift shop and on occasion was able to spend time with the beautiful Suffolk Punches (the horse, not Ipswich Town Football Club). ‘Tourism’ and ‘leisure’ would have been foreign concepts to a good proportion of earlier inhabitants of the Country. Back then, the horses were a common sight pulling ploughs across the East Anglian countryside for their keep; involved in food production, not entertainment and education.

By the time I moved into more new-fangled jobs things become far removed from my forebears. What on Earth would they have made of selling CDs and DVDs for a Top Dog? The idea of chain stores and branding didn’t really boom, regardless of product, until the expansion of the railways. And what about promoting sustainable travel through major developments and behaviour change in schools and businesses? What other choice did people originally have than their two feet, a boat or perhaps later, a train? This one is a prime example of how ‘progress’ can backfire! As for business continuity, wouldn’t that have been called ‘using your common sense, and trying not to injure yourself – or worse’!? 

The generations before me show a gradual shift, as with most families, from the traditional ‘job for life’ to the likes of me – moving from one job and organisation to another as opportunities arise, choices make themselves available (perhaps as qualifications and experience grow) and decisions beyond an individual’s control force their hand. 

Not that these influences are purely a new phenomenon. While ancestors did regularly pass a trade from father to son for generations – be it shoe making, weaving, farming (you’d never guess much of ancestry was East Anglian!) – there are plenty of examples of ancestors who changed their occupations. 

The following characters from my family tree illustrate a few of these changes: 

  • Sisters Alice, Florence, Jane and Kate all moved with their families to Saltley in Birmingham from Suffolk. Many of their family members worked in local munitions factories from around 1900 where a generation earlier their families had been farmers and agricultural labourers. Did they choose to migrate, or was there really little choice as demand for agricultural workers reduced? 
  • A father believing in education was able to pave the way for three of his sons to become doctors where previously the family had lived from their lands. These sons went on to ‘sponsor’ the children of their cousins who were similarly able to take up the opportunities of further education and even an associated Grand Tour while their own father’s fortune declined. 
  • A clergyman found a way to get his son a position as an Officer in the Bengal Army, perhaps as a way of elevating the family’s influence and the son’s standing in society. Sadly the individual in question died at just 19. 
  • A distant uncle became a ginger-beer maker as the weaving industry in Wymondham on which he had previously relied collapsed. Ten years later he had made the move to London to work in a factory as part of the tide of movement during the industrial revolution. 
  • The son of a labourer entered the police force and worked his way up to Sergeant, retiring to a farm of his own while his father had been at the beck and call of another man. 

The difference between myself and these people has much to do with the balance of choice and necessity. I have been lucky enough to make several informed choices about the direction of my career. My journey to this point perhaps began in Primary School when my teacher put ‘excellent work – a future village recorder?’ on a research project about the history of Peasenhall. However, the path my ancestors followed was often ‘decided’ before birth, or at least decisions might be taken by their parents before they were adults.

The level of choice we have, in education and in career, might be very different to that of our predecessors, but what we do have in common is that we are not immune to external influences. A decision made in the corridors of power, a change in the economy or a social upheaval can still have an impact on individuals, just as it did a century or a millennium ago. I have not been immune to this – the spending review forced my hand on one occasion, but unlike Ezekiel Coman, the weaver mentioned above, I was able to find another post relatively easily as skills for one customer-focussed job were transferable to another. In Ezekiel’s day, the tertiary sector was hardly a big employer.

A family history means more if it is placed in the context of the time in which it was played out. I am where I am – in my work and more generally – because the decisions I have made, the forces exerted on me and the choices available to me have brought me here. It was no different for my ancestors, and understanding these influences on their lives also helps me to understand them.

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