Reconsidering Manual Labor

For years, American educators have been touting the rise of the "knowledge economy" and shifting focus away from the manual trades, encouraging teens onto the four-year college track in preparation for our supposedly postindustrial society. Meanwhile, cubicle jobs are increasingly going the route of manufacturing work as corporations outsource any task that can be delivered over a wireless connection. And thanks to the financial crisis, that drain is only likely to accelerate. So perhaps it's time to reconsider where the future of work is headed as the century unfolds. It's a subject that's starting to gain traction, first in the writings of Princeton economist Alan Blinder and most recently in a clever book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, by philosopher (and motorcycle repairman) Matthew Crawford.

The Idea: American elites tend to harbor ambivalent feelings about manual labor and the blue-collar trades, which are increasingly identified as jobs of the past, only suitable for low-skilled or immigrant laborers. However, manual trades (construction, repair, and maintenance) are among the few jobs that have proved resilient to global outsourcing. Moreover, as Crawford argues, working with one's hands can potentially be more lucrative and intellectually satisfying than being a low-level cubicle worker.  

The Evidence: Crawford, who left a think tank to open his own repair shop, makes some compelling arguments about the link between independent thinking, self-reliance, and working with one's hands. The connection is hardly new: ancient Greek notions of "knowledge" (sophia) and "craftiness" (techne) also implied manual dexterity (Athena was patron goddess of both widsom and craftsmen) and Heidegger identified man as a fundamentally tool-using animal. Blinder predicts that work will soon be divided between "personal services" requiring face-to-face contact (a physician, for example) and "impersonal services" that don't, and can thus be sent abroad (a radiologist who reads patient X-rays and types up the results). He counts 30 million to 40 million of these impersonal jobs, from scientists and editors to clerks and typists, and predicts that the economic upheaval for white-collar workers is just beginning. For manual labor, however, his analysis suggests a future of rising wages and demand.

The Conclusion: Americans may need to rethink whether they should continue to push kids toward cubicles. But embracing manual labor is going to require a sea change in the upper-middle class, which has been looking forward to a high-tech, "labor-lite" future. College students are now expected to be "pliable generalists" rather than specialists, but perhaps it's time to start relearning independent craft skills that integrate both the head and the hands.