The World of the Pieceworker

Once upon a time, a man (or woman) entered a job, worked his entire life, and retired not seeing the light of day in another company, not knowing the travails of unemployment unless his own company went bankrupt, remaining naive and loyal, and at retirement receiving a pin, a handshake and a pension. These symbols of gratitude were as valuable as the decorations placed upon war veteran’s chests at the end of their service, with the accompanying words, “Well done, old boy! Sorry about the blown•up leg and the shrapnel in your chest, but you took one for the team. Enjoy your pension until you die, it’s on us.”

But that has all changed now, hasn’t it? Gone are those lifelong careers. Piecework, or transactional employment, is now the fashion. While demobilized soldiers still receive a pension for the limbs and minds sacrificed in war, the guys who metaphorically endure the same kinds of losses in the trenches of the business or arts world have lucked out. They are beset with employers asking: “Can you work only one day this week—Sunday?” “How many pieces of that widget can you make in an hour? 40? Not enough. How about 120?” “I don’t care about how many books you have in you, I’ll try this first one, and if I like it, I’ll come back (if you haven’t died of hunger in the meantime, that is).”

While all this bodes well for the best products being available in the market at all times, it does not improve the life of the creators of these products who cannot be producing at their best all the time, and who cannot always be expected to outperform each other and themselves. What will happen to our piece worker with his infrequent bursts of creative brilliance? Impoverishment and neglect will get him eventually, after his best pieces have been sold.

Translating this development to the world of writing, even mighty Google has realized that it cannot forget the bedrock upon which its giant advertizing revenues have been built: content, and by extension, that quintessential piece worker, the writer. How to save this much•maligned hack is now the crusade that Google, and other givers•away of content, are trying to determine. We hear of “premium content zones” or walled information communities, where “curated content” will be made available for a fee, with writers being nurtured, protected (and hopefully compensated) for such valuable output. Is the pendulum swinging back? Is it, really?

Will we ever return to the whole•life based relationship between creators and their employers, where the former are nurtured, fed, and released to produce their life’s work, free of the shackles of worrying about when or where the next meal is coming from? Or has progress led us back to the dark ages where the baser pre•occupations of acquiring food, shelter and safety overpower the pursuit of self•actualization, back to a world devoid of creativity?

Piecework may make short term economic sense from an employer’s viewpoint. But it devalues the very resource, the creator, who produces the product. Ultimately this lame donkey may have to be put to sleep, impoverishing the farmer.

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