The Corporate Era
Lasting from A.Y. 4107 to 4709, the Corporate Era saw the rise of several mega-coporations in some of the outer regions of The World. In total, 7,500 star systems were controlled by 18 corporate empires. While existing technically as publicly-traded companies, these empires issued their own currency, built their own fleets of warships, and enforced their own laws; controlling the lives of trillions of people. The era culminated in the Corporate Wars. (Some of the later editions of the Accepted Histories place the adventures of Marcus Ransom in this era, although in a different region).
Mabach Micoru was the first such mega-corp to establish a permanent off-world colony of the type later known as a 'total control zone'. Typically, colonization was either a government endeavor, or little more than small mining camps. Micoru's large-scale colony began with a million people, every one an employee of the conglomerate.
Officially, the mega-corps were 'following the lead' of the Gudersnipe Foundation, which had at that point existed for over 3,000 years and was, on paper at least, a mega-corp in its own right (for legal reasons, the entire Foundation is technically an asset owned by a small haberdashery). However, while the Foundation's goal always has been long-term stability, the mega-corps were strictly about making money.
After Micoru, T.K Inc. was next to gain corpocracy-status. Numerous other groups followed suit, and after more than a century of mergers, acquisitions, and hostile takeovers, some eighteen mega-corps gained control in the beta-quadrant of The World. This was quite far away from regions like the Utops Cluster and the Runarin Star Empire; and while some efforts were made to follow the guidelines set forth by the Alliance Space Commission, by the 4220s the corporations had gained complete dominance.
Adding further to the tensions, "corporate space" was not a defined region, but rather a series of unconnected star systems existing along side thousands of single worlds or multi-world governments, many of whom the corporations existed to do business with. Corporate worlds were not given the status of independent governments, though many of them operated well above that level.
Despite their vast resources, none of the corpocracies were able to construct large FTL drives, which limited them primarily to sub-dreadnought class warships. A few did experiment with chaining multiple small drives (a concept known for massive reliability problems) or fitting larger, slower freighter drives. Some old slow FTL drives (mothballed over a thousand years earlier) were fielded for mobile battle stations.
Living in a Corpocracy
Life under corporate rule was challenging for most. On corporate worlds, the only employer was the corporation, wages were paid in company scrip, and rates, rules, and regulations were whatever the corporation deemed appropriate. Free trade was stifled, and corporate practices were openly hostile toward independent operations. They claimed this was "in line with the practices of the Foundation", and used this as frequent legal precedent for keeping out government oversight. (Such practices were not at all in line with those of Gudersnipe, which promoted a high standard of living that propped up small businesses. Corporate hostility towards the Foundation was driven by the Foundation's general disdain for large, abusive corporations, which it did often undermine).
As the generations passed, life in corporate space grew increasingly unbearable. There was no real justice system, no courts, no rule of law. There was only the corporation, and whatever laws its security force chose to enforce. While it was possible, with effort, to rise above one's caste (for example a laborer becoming a worker, or the child of a worker becoming a scientist), it was uncommon and very difficult, and depended less on one's merits than on sheer luck.
As time passed, the criminal element became increasingly powerful, and in a way represented its own caste. While any sort of large-scale organized crime would be stopped quickly by the corporations, smaller elements could operate with impunity with a few choice bribes. Corporations even made use of these elements, often employing criminal gangs or mercenaries to do the dirty work for them, as strike breakers, or cleaners; the most successful criminals survived by being just useful enough to keep around.
On a typical corporate world, "employees" lived within a rigid caste system of 'laborers', 'workers', 'scientists', 'executives', and 'security'. While not enforced by regulation, the economics of the era made moving from one caste to another next to impossible.
- Laborer - blanket term for anyone not working directly for the corporations' chief interests, and typically consisted of unskilled work. Laborers were mostly farm workers, drivers, packers, or anything else done with minimal training by expendable people. These mostly worked for "subsidiaries", which while being wholly-owned by the principal mega-corp, had some independence of operation.
- Workers - the skilled laborers, doing trained jobs directly for the corporation. These people earned higher wages and enjoyed a higher standard of living over all, but were still typically considered "lower class" elsewhere in the verse. Workers had some rights and more job security, though being fired was still a constant and ever-looming threat, especially in punishment for independent innovation and free speech.
- Scientists - the term is misleading, as under corporate rule few "scientists" were doing what would typically be recognized as 'science'. These were skilled, educated workers, such as industrial chemists, engineers, mathematicians, economists, and architects, who designed ships and weapons, oversaw resource extractions, etc. They enjoyed a high standard of living and often had independent communities separate from the workers and laborers.
- Executives - the social elite, the share-holders. Originally these began as the corporate executives when the mega-corps first merged, but over time they became inherited positions based on family wealth and the number of voting shares held. A family might collectively own enough shares to control a seat on the board, which in turn allowed a patriarch (usually; most executives had some female authority, but even these operated mostly through male agents) to appoint various members to important positions within the corporate structure. These family dynasties often became more important than the corporations themselves, especially if the family tree narrowed and a few people could centralize a large amount of power. In the later days of the era it was vanishingly rare for anyone to move up from another caste into executive status. To become an executive required attending, at a young age, one of the highly exclusive executive training programs. The costs of these programs were exorbitant, and the few annual slots went almost exclusively to the children of executives. The few that did not mostly went to people with friends, such as high-ranking security personnel or scientists; people who might know a high-ranking executive with influence.
- Security - began as the corporate security guards, eventually formed into a combination military/police force. Security was called upon just as often to put down civil unrest in the corporate towns as to defend actual assets. While there were technically laws on every corporate world, the security force was corrupt and very selective about enforcement. Security was somewhat different from the other castes in that anyone could move to it (and frequently did); and unlike other castes, tended to reward loyalty and dedication rather than nepotism. While it was nearly unheard of for anyone who joined the security force to move into executive status, it was possible for a worker or laborer to join and achieve a comparatively high standard of living. The children of particularly highly-placed security personnel did have opportunities for advancement.
The mega-corps existed within a culture of competition, corporate espionage, and outright sabotage. While they did have a legal operating principle, it was customary to subvert it in any way possible. By the start of the second century of the Fourth Age, each corporation was fielding a fleet of warships powerful enough to keep the Alliance away. By the end of the end of the second century, they were the de-facto law in the region, as the many independent nations (mostly Alliance worlds) lacked the resources to field warships of their own.
Alliance Member Worlds did enjoy legal protection, which typically stopped roughly at the edge of the planet's gravitational pull. The few lucky enough to control multiple solar systems had a better standing, but often had to contract out mining and transport to the corporations, thus forcing them to ally with one and risk the wrath of the others.
It was, over all, not a good situation. For member worlds, the problem was made even more challenging as refugees began to arrive. Though technically "employees" were born into 99-year contracts, many especially from the laborer and worker castes, chose to leave and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Since they were paid in corporate script, this meant arriving on Alliance planets with little more than the clothes on their backs. While some, like Lars O'mally, did well for themselves, the vast majority found their new lives little better than the ones they had left.
Education is a strictly for-profit enterprise and many employees have to go without. The rules state that every child must be provided with compulsory education until the age of fourteen. Businesses may provide the education themselves or outsource to a third-party provider (though in practice every single business in a company town is owned, in some measure, by the corporation). Basic education includes mathematics, literacy (not to be confused with literature; most of literacy is about reading instruction manuals), and the sciences.
In practice, only the children of executives receive a decent corporate-sponsored education. Scientists can afford to send their children to good schools, as can some of the higher-ranking security personnel. Lower-ranking executives (such as junior and middle managers) often send their children to "private" schools. Their income affords them the ability to provide a higher standard of education than the company will, as only the elites get the very best.
For the worker and labor-class, the prospect is much worse. In the dense urban areas, various companies can pool their resources on sub-contractors. The kids do get a real education (though a hot, noisy, and terribly crowded one). The outlying regions are much worse. With no child welfare or working laws enforced, the companies with a smaller pool of children pay only the most rudimentary lip service to the notion of teaching. In the smaller and even more remote agricultural areas, it is common practice to simply bribe the inspectors; leaving entire generations who can neither read, write, or spell.
Very little effort is expended to enforce or correct these problems, even as it's been seen to cause labor shortages and over-all lack of quality. The fact that this was happening on industrial worlds creates even more issues.
Higher education can be entered at any time, though generally completing compulsory education is expected first. This consists primarily of trade schools, designed to teach children the skills necessary to become workers (I.E., skilled laborers). There also exist programs to educate them as scientists, but these are more difficult to get into without connections, and much more expensive. Lastly, the children of executives enjoy access to executive training programs, better known as business schools.
The corporate structure does not offer degrees, only certifications.
Children are not legally considered adults until the age of 19, however with compulsory education ending at 14, this is the defacto age of majority. There are no rules regarding age of consent. Officially, no one under 14 is allowed to work unless supervised by a parent or guardian. In practice these rules are seldom enforced beyond occasional lip-service.
In fact, the age of majority being set so high is one of the very few semi-positive examples of workers rights. Because no one under 19 may legally hold a job or enter into a contract(except the one they were born into) without parental consent, this allows laborers and workers to keep their children home for longer and contributing to the household longer. In some areas, no one under 19 can even formally accept a wage, their wages have to be given to their parent or guardian. Ostensibly, the law is so parents can put their children through vocational training programs while also having them.
Under-aged labor is achieved through a few basic loopholes. The first is classify the job as "gig work" meaning payment by the job; which can be done in cash without any requirement for identification. This frees employers to simply state they did not know the age of the laborer. The second is to simply file paperwork declaring someone on site the legal guardian. This is a popular method for mining and logging sites to bring in very cheap labor. There's even the oft-joked and unofficial title "wrangler" which is given the the supervisor who, in addition to the other duties, owns children for the company.
Officially there is none. Unofficially, it hovers around 15%. 70% of the population are employed directly by the corporations in either salaries or hourly roles. Of the remaining 30%, about 8% work as domestic servants
The Corporate Wars
Following the wars, the mega-corps were dismantled. Perhaps the most interesting legacy is the so-called "prison generation" that spawned from the crimes committed. Fully 30% of the population served some sort of jail time as punishment for crimes committed during the war, with at least 10% receiving either life sentences or the death penalty.
It took generations to reconstruct the region in the aftermath, with most of the rehabilitation being done by the Gudersnipe Foundation. The modern area is considered a part of joint space and went on to play a crucial role in the Kamian Succession Wars.