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Nine Decades Later

March 1, 2012
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Ninety years. Think about it.

While that's a blip on the radar for countries such as China or Greece, that number makes up 38 percent of U.S. history going back to the Declaration of Independence. And so much has happened in the past 90 years, especially in the U.S. workforce. Without a doubt, we've come a long way.

For instance, we take technology such as computers and cellphones for granted today, but, relatively speaking, it wasn't that long ago that state-of-the-art typewriters and what we would now call "old-fashioned" telephones made the office place easier to operate in. True story: The first magazine I worked for in 1995 had just gotten computers about a year before I started, and the phone, which I shared with the woman who sat across from me, looked like it was right out of a 1940s Spencer Tracy flick.

Then there's workplace safety. I'm not saying it isn't an issue in 2012, but, for the most part, companies today are much more serious about safe workplace conditions. In West Virginia alone, there were 18 major coal mine accidents in the 1920s leading to 419 deaths. Compare that with the two accidents that occurred between 2000 and 2009 that resulted in 15 deaths. While no workplace-related death is acceptable, it's clear the U.S. has moved in a safer direction. If you want to learn more about workplace safety, check out our story at workforce.com/1920s.

Benefits have changed as well. My guess is if you could jump into your 1.21-gigawatt-powered time-traveling DeLorean and go back to 1922, you'd get a lot of puzzled looks from workers—and not just from the car—if you asked them about retirement benefits. They existed in the form of defined benefit plans (e.g., pensions), but those perks were few and far between. Plus, who needed to worry about retirement when there was a fortune to be made in the stock market? It wasn't until the Great Depression that most people and companies started to think about how workers would be able to provide for themselves and their families in their golden years. (To learn more, why not check out our historical pension story at workforce.com/1930s?) Employer-sponsored health insurance? Good luck finding many companies that offered that in the 1920s. It wasn't until World War II that U.S. companies started providing it en masse.

So where did this all begin? For me, it started last summer when I was asked if I wanted to oversee the content for our 90th anniversary. I didn't have to think about it. Yes. I love history. Always have.

After accepting the assignment, my mind immediately started wandering and began pondering what we could do to make this 90th anniversary issue special. You see, it originally started out as a one-and-done concept, but it later morphed into a monthly feature focusing on a certain topic from a particular decade, starting with the 1920s, along with the microsite that you see here. (By the way, you should read our latest story on veterans returning to the workforce at workforce.com/1940s. Great stuff!) Of course, we also have our special 90th-anniversary issue in the works for July.

The next task was thinking about whom we could get to write either a commentary or for an interview. I've had some successes lining up interviews, such as President Lyndon Johnson's attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, talking about the Civil Rights Act, which will be posted soon, and some failures—it can be McFrustrating when McPeople won't return McPhone Calls or McEmails, if you know what I mean—but I will keep trying to get the interesting people I think you'd like to hear from. If you have any ideas, feel free to send them along.

One of the best things about this project was when I and Workforce Management managing editor Rick Bell went to Detroit late last year to look through the archives. It's pretty cool to read the stories dating back to 1922. One of the first articles that caught my eye was from the very first issue. It was a piece titled "Blond and Brunette Traits: A Qualitative Study" that took up five pages of editorial space. The study produced this heady analysis: "Brunettes were found to possess blond traits to the same extent that blonds do. Blonds were found to possess brunette traits to the same extent that brunettes do."

As I said in the beginning, we've come a long way.

Enjoy the site.

James Tehrani is copy desk chief at Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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