First, this paper sketches the development of labour history as a historical subdiscipline up to the 1970s and 1980s when it became a booming field, an area of great excitement and high productivity. Why this should have been the case is an interesting question to ask in hindsight. Secondly, I discuss certain trends in the last 10–15 years that are related to a decline in this field, not in terms of sophistication, but certainly with regard to the field's popularity among historians, students and the public. Dealing with this rather dramatic change might tell us something about the way my discipline – modern history with a stress on social history – works, where it gets its vitality from, its conjunctures and fashions. Thirdly, I present some personal ideas about how one could, and perhaps should, deal with the present situation, its problems and its opportunities. I am presently working on the third volume of a history of labour in 19th century Germany – a project to which I have returned after many years. Some of the general problems I have encountered in this project will also be dealt with, indirectly, in this paper.