The Times, They’re A-Changing Part II

“The putting-out system is a means of subcontracting work. Historically, it was also known as the workshop system and the domestic system. In putting-out, work is contracted by a central agent to subcontractors who complete the project via remote work. It was used in the English and American textile industries, in shoemaking, lock-making trades, and making parts for small firearms from the Industrial Revolution until the mid-19th century. After the invention of the sewing machine in 1846, the system lingered on for the making of ready-made men’s clothing.
The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work, which was quite infeasible due to the state of roads and footpaths, and members of the household spent many hours in farm or household tasks.”

So begins the Wikipedia article on the putting-out system, a system that is about sub-contracting work.

This system isn’t just suited to pre-urban times, of course, it is also especially suited to pandemic times. The question to ask, of course, is whether it is also suited to post-pandemic times. And an article in the Economist seems to suggest that this may well be the case:

The Industrial Revolution ended the “putting-out system”, in which companies obtained raw materials but outsourced manufacturing to self-employed craftsmen who worked at home and were paid by output. Factories strengthened the tie between workers, now employed directly and paid by the hour, and workplace. The telegraph, telephone and, in the last century, containerised shipping and better information technology (IT), have allowed multinational companies to subcontract ever more tasks to ever more places. China became the world’s factory; India became its back office. Nearly three years after the pandemic began, it is clear that technology is once again profoundly redrawing the boundaries of the firm.

If you are a person embarking upon a new career today, not only is it possible for you to earn a fairly comfortable living working out of your home, wherever it may be located in the world, it is actually desirable to do so. Not for all people of course, but the pandemic, and the acceleration of technologies associated with the consequences of the pandemic, has made it possible for you to easily do so.

Part of the reason is, as the Economist article puts it, because of the fact that ‘measuring workers’ performance based on their actual output rather than time spent producing it’ has become progressively easier. That’s not a light sentence to write, by the way, because it hides at least two Nobel Prizes’ worth of work, if not more. And because it has become easier to specify what you want, and how to measure whether it is being done or not, the ‘putting-out’ system seems to be making a comeback of sorts.

A survey of nearly 500 American firms by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta last year found that 18% were using more independent contractors than in previous years; 2% said they used fewer. On top of that, 13% relied more on leased workers, compared with 1% who reduced this reliance.

Which, to my mind, means that we need to think about five big-picture questions as a consequence of this trend:

  1. How will this impact patterns of urbanization? This is not an easy question to think about!
  2. How will this impact education? Will there be the evolution of the putting out model in academia also? Why or why not, and what will the equilibrium look like? Also not an easy question to think about, and I now have a better appreciation for inertia.
  3. How will the certification of both learning and working evolve? Will freelancing now carry more weightage on a CV? Or less, as before? How should we think about what to look for on a fresher’s CV?
  4. How far away is ubiquitous VR? How will that impact the dynamics of working/learning from home?
  5. How will this impact work culture and college culture in the years to come, and how should we think about this from a normative perspective?