Plenty of people are talking about how the pandemic has changed the world of work. If Covid had appeared 20-30 years ago (before Amazon, before Zoom) that wouldn’t have been possible. But the “gig economy” that was well under way pre-pandemic, has only accelerated with the work-from-home culture.
In a sense, this is like a circle, back to the world we had before 9-5 and the growth of white collar office work with the rise of industrialisation. Before production moved into factories (and for some industries, continuing long after), things were made by piecework. People worked from home or in small workshops, and were paid by the item - not by the hour.
Thomas Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders features piecework fairly prominently. One of the young women in the novel, Marty, is doing piecework for a timber dealer. She’s actually doing her father’s work, as he is old and ill. As she explains her rates:
“Well, now tell me,” said the man, more softly. “How much do you get?”
“Eighteenpence a thousand,” she said, reluctantly.
“Who are you making them for?”
“Mr. Melbury, the timber-dealer, just below here.”
“And how many can you make in a day?”
“In a day and half the night, three bundles—that’s a thousand and a half.”
What she’s making are bundles of spars - sharpened sticks for roof thatching. She gathers suitable sticks in the woods, whittles the ends by hand, and bundles them up. Bundling up 1000 sticks is about as hard as you’d imagine, and it barely provides enough for her to live on. The novel is set around 1860 (some 30 years before it was written), and one of Hardy’s recurring themes is the rapid change of the nineteenth century, as old rural cultures were being cast aside.
Piecework was left behind in many places by mechanisation (of jobs like Marty’s), and labor laws (which promoted hourly wages rather than unit pay). Many workers, especially in rural areas, were caught between the old ways, and an industrial world which was pricing them out. The idea of the eight hour day, that brought many people security, also removed some layers of freedom that peace workers used to have.
Now it's not for me to get misty-eyed over systems of labor that were exploited for many, and certainly provided none of the protections that the modern infrastructure state has come to allow us to expect. But it’s interesting that this style of employment has been repackaged as “gig work” and sold for its flexibility.
Some economists have noted women’s high participation in the gig economy, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Their reasons are the same that women generations ago did “gig work”, and that the piecework model lingered in industries that were and are predominantly female (like textile work): women could work around taking care of their children.
It's interesting to know that it was only in the 1986 that home knitting for sale became legal in the United States having been made illegal decades before - by New Deal regulations designed to protect workers’ rights. The 80s liberalisation was against fierce resistance from garment workers unions, who declared it would mean the return of sweatshops. Meanwhile, those on the side of the knitters felt that they were being denied an economic opportunity to earn by their own hand.
I’m in the process of writing multiple applications for different types of economic function. For salaried jobs, it feels very different to write a cover letter post-covid. Partly because it’s unclear sometimes what the role will even involve. It's a much different thing to be writing letter on the lines of, I'm looking forward to moving to your town and working in your office, versus I’d like to stay right here in my living room and just Zoom in.
Meanwhile I’m also sending pitches for freelance stuff (piecework in its own way), and to potential agents to represent my book.
And I’m moving into a different type of work too - with a side hustle I’ll mention more in weeks to come. I’m both excited and terrified…..So this piece by Meghan Daum hit me hard. She talks about making a career pivot, and how after a certain point, you really need to stick the landing. Wish me luck!