Week 2 Posting: Cycles of Task Based Work

“work is almost always task-oriented in nonindustrial societies… and… it may be appropriate to tie wages to tasks and not directly to time in newly developing areas.” (Wilbert Moore, 1951)

I found this quote and the entire section (Section VII, page 90) of E.P. Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism to be the most interesting this week. The above quote discussing labor habits in Mexico in got em thinking about connections to contemporary work and task-oriented work. Thompson notes that Moore’s observation is reminiscent of the “.. mercantilist moralists as to the failures of the 18th century English poor to respond to incentives and disciplines is often repeated…” (Thompson, 91)

While Moore’s use of “nonindustrial” certainly meant pre-industrial, I found myself wondering if we aren’t currently experiencing a similar phenomenon in a deindustrializing economy. The focus on tasks, then and now, certainly seems to indicate such a connection. Another author, M.D. Bernstein, notes the vigorous nature with which Mexican miners would work when offered task-oriented labor versus clock-oriented. This apparent predisposition to work with vigor and get paid regardless of time spent on the task seems reminiscent of some contemporary workplaces implementing “unlimited vacation” and flexible work schedule policies.

In reflecting on work I have done, specifically some of my early jobs, I was reminded of similar situations. In one job in high school, as a houseman for a hotel, my job was to clean the common spaces of the hotel, maybe assist in finishing the days laundry. All of the duties of this job would take on average less than half of the 8 hour shift. I certainly would have allowed to be done after completing my tasks in order to have more leisure time (or homework, chores, etc.!).

I think we tend to think about the trajectory of work as linear and/or exponential but this week I found myself wondering about the cyclical aspects of the work trajectory.


2 thoughts on “Week 2 Posting: Cycles of Task Based Work”

  1. Interesting thought, regarding whether the work trajectory is liner/exponential vs cyclical. I’d like to suggest another possibility, that perhaps it’s not so much cyclical, but rather, being paid for time spent on the job is a one-time anomaly in the history of work and humankind.

    I.e., prior to the industrial revolution, work was task-based. The industrial revolution brought us mills, factories etc, which led to people being paid for time spent on the job, a practice that continued as we moved to a post-industrial society, but a practice that likely will not survive. We may soon find that task-based work is most efficient and, as you suggested in your post, we will return to that system.

  2. There is an analogy here to how we parcel out credits in higher education, focusing on time spent in classes. It will be interesting to get to our discussion about the future of universities when we have this broader context.

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