- Modern "knowledge work" can be more nervating than liberating.
- Working with one's hands is wrongfully viewed as a sacrifice, a last resort, and a waste of talent.
- A successful motorcycle mechanic is every bit a scientist and scholar, engaging in at least as much complex thinking, problem-solving, ethical reasoning, and social intelligence as any academic in a university lab or library.
- Shop work has more genuine utility, integrity, and fun than a lot of cubicle jobs.
Crawford also offers this observation about what constitutes a good job:
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences [Matthew B. Crawford, "The Case for Working with Your Hands," New York Times Magazine, 2009.05.24].
Crawford pegs where I experience the disconnect with my Madison neighbors who think landing a call center would be a step up for our town. We want more jobs, steady wages, and good benefits, but we don't have a lot of conversations about the work itself. Forget the paycheck and perks: does your work itself make your soul healthy? Does it help your neighbors? Does it serve your god(s)? How often do we ask those questions... and how often do we instead just shut those questions out of our minds for 8 hours a day?
Crawford sees the economy driving more people to spend their money on repairing what they have rather than just buying more new junk. He is hopeful that the sternly shaken economy will free more people to pursue jobs more oriented to their true callings, whether for management or mechanics.
Perhaps motorcycle repair shops will fare well, but Robert Reich's most recent online essay argues that a lot of other physical jobs are gone for good. The former Labor Secretary argues that trying to save manufacturing jobs at GM and elsewhere is a fool's errand. Productivity gains have caused declines in manufacturing jobs everywhere. Percentage-wise, Japan, Brazil, and our main nemesis China have lost more such jobs than the U.S. has. Machines and computers mean we just don't need as many people to build things any more.
You should be nervous anytime you hear "don't need" and "people" that close together. But Reich says it's inevitable, and we should accept it, just as we did in farming (30% of Americans worked to produce food a hundred years ago; now less than 5% do). Reich lists a number of jobs that technology has replaced and is replacing: elevator operators, telephone operators, bank tellers, gas station attendants, store check-out clerks, travel agents, real estate brokers, stock brokers, and accountants.
Reich says routine jobs—all those jobs Crawford mentioned that can be reduced to rule-following—are disappearing. So what's left for human workers?
A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They're composers, writers and producers. They're lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this "symbolic analytic" work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas [Robert Reich, "The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers (Part I)," Robert Reich's Blog, 2009.05.29].
That's great news for idea-guys like me. If I were my dad, I'd be nervous. My dad was a mechanic in the Army. He has worked for Morrell's, built and painted houses, and now mans an assembly line making plastic widgets at PPD. He hates computers, I think because they have no moving parts, nothing a guy can just look at and understand. But where I spend half an hour using a spreadsheet and trigonometry to figure out the lengths for studs on a shed with an angled roof, he drops a line and cuts.
My intelligence is symbolic-analytic. Dad's is physical-mechanical. His intelligence is every bit as good as mine, and a heck of a lot more useful when we want to dig a basement or fix the mower. But the economy Reich describes favors my intelligence over Dad's intelligence.
Or does it? Are workers spinning the same bolts in the same holes a thousand times a day really using their physical-mechanical intelligence the same way Crawford does in his motorcycle shop? The routine jobs to which Reich says good riddance are mostly mindless; clear them away, and we free those workers—or challenge those workers—to do work that uses their bodies and minds more fully for jobs that mass-production robots can't do, like fixing motorcycles, building houses, or operating a skid-steer.
My dad doesn't have to worry: he's close to retiring. But what about workers like him, for whom a cubicle job would be a spirit-damaging waste of talent? If manufacturing disappears, do we have enough work—not just jobs, not just excuses for paychecks, but real dignified and dignifying work for every one of our neighbors?
Work that gets our hands dirty is important. It allows us to connect mind and body with the physical reality around us, not to mention with the neighbor who needs a motor fixed or a leaky toilet replaced. We need to remember that working with things requires as much knowledge as the vaunted "knowledge work" the academy and economy celebrate. Even if we embrace the economic realities Reich discusses, we must also keep in mind Crawford's message about the value of work as something that builds not just GDP but souls and communities.