Revolutionary Measures

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

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January 14, 2015 - Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

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