For all the talk about downturns being an opportunity for society to pull together, the current recession has been marked by an ugly round of class warfare. On the one hand, the middle class is ready to lynch the insanely well-paid financial-sector workers who brought the economy to its knees and are already back to looting the till. At the same time, there is little sympathy for those who actually work for a living, with a lot of anger directed at striking blue-collar workers who are deemed unworthy of their demands for wages and benefits.
What’s weirdest about this class war, though, is how the heroes of the knowledge economy, the members of the so-called creative class, have turned on themselves. In one of those odd moments of cultural synchronicity, everywhere you look these days someone is pledging their newly discovered appreciation for the virtues of skilled manual labour. In contrast with the inert “creative” work that involves moving columns of numbers around or turning one set of squiggly lines on a page into another set of squiggly lines on a page, activities that involve making and manipulating actual stuff are finding new fans.
There is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton, Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City, about her adventures raising pigs and rabbits in inner-city Oakland, and a recent essay in the National Review, wonderfully titled “Joseph Epstein, Unhandyman.”
But probably the most interesting recent salvo is the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, by the poli-sci Ph.D.-turned-motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford. This widely excerpted book is a smart and sharp attack on the very idea of the creative class, dismissing knowledge workers as semi-lobotomized cubicle-dwelling paper pushers who produce nothing of value and who have outsourced their self-esteem and self-respect to middle management.
Part of the “hard work is great” trend is just the usual writerly fascination with the exotic—and for many writers, any household chore more complicated than changing a lightbulb is more alien than a trip up the Amazon. As Epstein writes, “I often met men who tuned their own cars or did their own plumbing, and, in one instance, a guy who was building his own house . . . I wished I had their talent.”
But another reason why writers have turned to re-examining the pleasures of getting our hands dirty is that this is just the sort of thing writers do when society reaches a certain level of self-consciousness about an institution in decline. Fetishization is a consequence of scarcity, which is why a few years ago everyone was talking about baby culture, and last year’s obsession was home cooking.
Crawford gets at a deeper issue though: the gnawing suspicion that we’ve been sold a bill of goods with this whole knowledge economy business, and its premise that everyone is entitled to meaningful and highly paid work that doesn’t involve going home covered in soot or smelling of bull’s blood. His conclusion is that we should all set up as skilled independent contractors doing work that is results-oriented and provides the intrinsic satisfaction of the exercise of skill for its own sake. As many reviewers have pointed out, this is the essentially the same prescription you’ll find in any number of similar books, with titles that run the gamut from Zen and the Art of Archery to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
As serious career advice, this is pretty dubious stuff. Crawford’s argument is in part a lament for the way society denigrates the trades as dirty, simple-minded and low-brow. We push kids away from vocational training and into university, our cultural snobbery generating a surfeit of underemployed kids with bachelor degrees while skilled but labour-intensive jobs go unfilled. The trouble with this thinking is pointed out every time the government puts out a budget pumping more billions into universities while leaving the colleges to starve, except it gets the actual dynamic exactly backwards.
The thing about high-level vocational training, though, is that it is long and the skills are difficult to acquire, and at the end of it you are left with a narrow set of abilities that pretty much ties you to that employment sector. Yet in survey after survey, the young people who are getting ready to “upskill” before heading out into the working world say they expect to have very fluid career paths. What they want from their education is flexibility, precisely the sort you get from a university degree. It is not prejudice that keeps them out of vocational school, but a sense that if it isn’t a dead end, it is at least a very narrow avenue of approach.
But Crawford’s point is not about job mobility or smart planning; it’s about the meaning of life. And in the end, the real bill of goods we’ve been sold is the idea that the work that feeds our bellies should also nourish our soul. As Joe Heath writes in his book Filthy Lucre, the market is a ruthless destroyer of dreams. Every kid wants to grow up to be a rock star or an astronaut or a firefighter, but the vast majority end up as cubicle drones or assembly-line widgets, not from choice but from necessity. There’s a reason why they call it work, and a reason why they pay you.
The creative class economy, with its promise of the perfect fusion of meaning and Mammon, was always a bogus idea. But so, too, is the idea that shopcraft will save us all. Ask Matthew Crawford. Notwithstanding his elegy for the merits of motorcycle maintenance, he pays the bills through consulting work, putting his despised Ph.D. to work.