Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Blue-Collar Revival?

I've been noticing this trend bubbling up for a while as a kind of a hipster thing: cool chicks and bearded dudes who decide to make a living selling crafts, or making artisanal cheeses, or leaving NYC to grow organic vegetables. Now, within the past couple of days, there have been two related articles in the New York Times:

Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic

Erin Axelrod, who graduated from Barnard College last week with an urban studies degree, will not be fighting over the bathroom with her five roommates on the Upper West Side this summer. Instead she will be living in a tent, using an outdoor composting toilet and harvesting vegetables on an organic farm near Petaluma, Calif.

As the sole intern at a boutique dairy in upstate New York, Gina Runfola, an English and creative writing student, has traded poetry books for sheep.

The Case for Working With Your Hands
High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

I understand the desire to do tangible, physical work. I've never been paid to make or grow anything, but even food service work and retail sales can offer the uncomplicated pleasure of carrying out a task efficiently and well. To work on an organic farm or sell your hand-made knit hats adds the attraction of nurturing something, or having some independence and creativity, which is important.

But of course there is a certain degree of romanticizing going in these articles. These people think it's cool and fun to repair obscure vintage European motorcycles, but they probably don't want to fix Hyundais. When they become bakers, it's to make fancy pastries or nostalgic, authentic pies, not open a Dunkin Donuts franchise. And as the farm intern article points out, Ivy Leaguers on their summer off aren't necessarily willing to live in the same conditions as your usual migrant fruit pickers. And in general a lot of people are willing to do something "interesting" for a little while, but once reality sets in, "boring" starts to look rather attractive.

And I can just imagine how the parents of most of these people feel: "I paid over $100,000 to send you to Barnard and you want to milk goats?!?!?!?"

But, HELLO, there are a lot of people out there who work on farms and fix things and make things who aren't so self-conscious about what it means for global warming, or whether people think they're cool. They just want to make a decent living, and have some degree of satisfaction and status from it, even if the work isn't always fun. We seem to have trouble keeping some of those jobs on our soil. But as the writer of the "Working with Your Hands" article points out, there are some good jobs that can't be exported, and you don't necessarily need a college degree to get them. If more people are willing to consider such jobs, rather than shunning them as somehow beneath their dignity, that's a good thing.

People who provide a valuable service or product deserve respect, whether or not they are highly educated or have clean fingernails all day. Plumbers don't universally have lower IQs than lawyers. Not everyone who works in a cubicle is a miserable drone, and not every organic farmer is a saint. Not every CEO "deserves" a higher salary than a doctor or a teacher or a garbage collector. And ultimately, people should find their own right balance between happiness and material success or social status. If you can happily support yourself knitting beanies or typing emails or churning butter, organic or not-- I say go for it!


Anonymous said...

you might want to pick up a few books on organic farming, crafts, and the like -- cause I hear the book industry is in trouble -- with lots of layoffs.

Anonymous said...

I took the point to be that not everyone needs to go to college, and we need to stop telling everyone that's what they need to do to have a successful life.

I have a master's degree, but I think back and sometimes wish that I hadn't even bothered. I enjoy creating things more than my office job. And I wouldn't have the school loans to pay off!

Anonymous said...

I really wish I had decided to work with my hands after college, like doing peace corps, rather than going to law school.

guinness416 said...

Great post. Definitely some romanticization at work, yeah. I work in the white-collar side of construction. I am often very jealous of the fit young guys on site who are very skilled, have the ability to pull a lot of nixers and whose days vary enormously, while I make schedules on a laptop and battle over the financial side of things.

But on the flip side some of the trades guys are dying to get the management experience I have to go out on their own or work indoors, and there are also some older guys out laying blocks or pushing brooms in the cold in their 50s, who look twenty years older than they are. The grass is always greener!

Jaylin4dc said...

As a 24 year old, I have noticed that my friends and recent graduates don't want to be part of or maintain the economic status quo. I don't want to be a liar at a bank or on wall street. I don't want to needlessly manufacture and market junk that adds little value to society and damages the environment. We treat people as "consumers" not humans - I don't want to make a living that way. Maybe organic farming, carpentry, and other hands-on jobs are becoming more appealing because they are "honest" jobs or jobs that are perceived as honest.

Sicilian said...

Somehow in our society we have gotten so technical in our thoughts that we forget that we need someone who can fix our broken toilet, car, house,air planes, and nearly everything that surrounds us.I love the ladies who clean my house, and I wished I could pay both the yard man and the house ladies, but I can't. . . . I will do the yard and the ladies can have the house every two weeks. . .
Oh and I am trying to grow my own food. . . thank God for the people who do it professionally. . . . I'd have a pretty sorry diet without the variety of food we can get at the store.