During the 2008 Presidential elections, it was the cartoon image on JoethePlumber.com that got America's turn-of-the-millennium perception of the trades just right, complete with pot belly, schlumpy pants, blue cap and "plumber crack." (Now that the one Joe the Plumber is famous, the site's been remodeled.) For decades, investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and "knowledge workers" were respected as the only sensible aspirational careers of the bourgeoisie.
It's not for nothing we call the rest of the U.S. the "working class." Knowledge work is seen as, not quite work, but a higher calling, the just use of one's fancy college degree; and, preferably, one's collection of graduate degrees and certifications.
As more and more of us began to acknowledge, at first just to ourselves, and later publicly, desk jobs are making us miserable.
Not only does knowledge work often fail to stimulate our sense of higher purpose, it's also abstract and often ethically questionable. In a long piece adapted from his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that most of us are stuck in jobs that "seem more surreal than real," intangible, darkly absurd. It's the way Sherman McCoy's wife describes the bond trader's job in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities: "Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn't bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that."
It's certainly not hard for most of us to do so, nor are our lives all that far off from McCoy's, or Dilbert's, or the career Crawford describes after he got his Ph.D. in political philosophy: "The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn't fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style ... [which] demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning." In other words, "stupidification."
In poetic and persuasive terms, Crawford makes the argument that now is the time to return to the work of the ages, work with our hands, "real work." Not only would it give us more fulfillment and happiness (with tangible results to our work); not only would it mentally challenge us in a new and honest way; but it would make us more ethical (even if we ended up in managerial work at some point). "There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience ... due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer. An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers' compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count -- not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason," he writes.
The new respectability of farmers is just one piece of evidence that more and more of America is changing its perception of dirty jobs. Here in Oregon, we get weak-kneed over potato farmers and cheesemakers; we admire bicycle builders so much that they have waiting lists half a decade long, and I've been known to become short of breath in the presence of masters. We build fences and dig in the dirt and have pie-making contests (and go back to our day jobs writing code or managing social media).
I can see a change coming, and so can Matthew Crawford. Get your gifted students and teach them to weld, he says, and perhaps a few burnt fingers will prevent the next crisis of business ethics.
It can't hurt to try.