Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that what used to be glowingly described as the Great American Jobs Machine may be beyond repair. The state of job market is so devastatingly bleak that pundits and economists celebrated when the economy shed 247,000 jobs in July, instead of the 600,000 to 700,000 jobs per month it hemorrhaged earlier this year. While I suppose it’s good that the economy sucks somewhat less these days, all signs point toward a jobless recovery. The official unemployment rate remained steady at just under 10 percent, but the Labor Department’s broader and less heralded measure that takes into account the underemployed and “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for jobs is over 16 percent. Even more discouraging is the news that the problem of long-term unemployment is sharply intensifying. The number of Americans unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 7.88 million, the highest figure ever recorded, and the average unemployed person has been jobless for over 25 weeks. Giddy talk about “green shoots” has obscured the fact that even if the recession ends on paper in the next couple of months, its effects are going to linger in the everyday lives of (possibly) working people for years to come.

But even if Team Obama can restore the status quo ante and succeed in getting the Great American Jobs Machine going again, would that be such a great thing? After all, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and the pre-recession boom, many of America’s fastest growing occupations were the kind that Barbara Ehrenreich took on in her book Nickel and Dimed - highly precarious service sector jobs that pay little, provide minimal or no benefits, and are physically and psychologically enervating. Even many of us fortunate enough to have made our way into the cadre of white-collar “symbolic analysts” at the heart of an information-driven economy became subject to the same deskilling and off-shoring that has decimated the ranks of America’s blue-collar working class over the last three decades. The lean, mean Great American Jobs Machine of business press lore tended to resemble a meat grinder more than anything else for most of us.

The time is ripe for a wide-ranging reevaluation of the ways in which we go about securing our livelihoods in the world, and the book publishers of the English-speaking world seem to agree. In recent months, a spate of books on work has hit the shelves, including Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.

By now, anyone with any exposure to Crawford’s book probably knows at least something of the man’s background. The marketing department at Penguin Books certainly won’t let us forget. Educated in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he renounced his sinecure as the head of a Washington think-tank (as far as I can tell, it was related to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in some fashion) to retire to Norfolk, Virginia to open his own vintage motorcycle repair shop. While many reviewers have conceived of the book primarily as some sort of self-help or career advice manual, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an engaging, fairly serious work of ethical and moral inquiry and sociopolitical criticism.

Crawford’s position is deeply conservative, but unlike many contemporary conservatives he has a deep skepticism about the goodness of modern corporate capitalism. He seeks to conserve what he sees as the best aspects of work generally and the manual trades in particular from the relentless onslaught of corporate power and the culture of consumption, which he sees as the most dangerous current threats to individual liberty rather than the state. Don’t fret, however. The book is not always as heavy as my description so far might make it out to be. There are a number of entertaining discussions of the life and work of a mechanic, and of the absurdity of Crawford’s previous incarnations as a harried cubicle dweller.

We will explore various aspects of Crawford’s book this month, but before we get to some of his specific arguments I would like to start the discussion by inviting you all to share some of your thoughts about the nature of the modern workplace. What do you find to be the best and worst aspects of work? How do you find meaning in your work (if any)? If you could change one thing about work, what would it be? Don’t worry, I won’t share the comments with your boss!

If you can't get the book right away, I recommend checking out this recent author talk:

or this recently published article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.


Anonymous said...

In the early ninties, I left college only to find that the US was in a recession. My college-educated friends and I got jobs in restaurants or bookstores or as baristas. We grew our own food in comunity gardens. We bought second-hand clothing and began to sew. One friend seriously considered becoming a carpenter. We eventually moved on to white-collar jobs (most of us).

Had we become small business owners, like the author, I think the autonomy may have made us happier. Conversely, we would have had to worry about health care, losing income when sick, and growing the business. I am not sure the Obama health plan will improve this situation.

It is interesting that this glorification of blue-collar work come about in a recession. Is it an attempt to assure boomer parents that its OK for their underemployed kids to take a blue-collar job?

Chris Maisano said...

Yes, you are entirely right in bringing up some of the negative sides of going into business for oneself, and I'll get into some criticisms I have of Crawford on this point later this month.

As for your speculation about the timing of the current glorification of blue collar work among the upper middle classes, I think what you propose has some validity but I think it's mostly a reaction to the increasing degradation of white-collar working life, as well as a reflection of anxiety around job insecurities brought on by "globalization." A graphic designer's work, for example, can be outsourced to wherever someone has access to the Internet, but a carpenter's or a plumber's work cannot.

Anonymous said...

A situation that existed back in the early 90's. However, the Dot.com and the Wall Street boom rapidly caused things to shift back in the other direction. Now there seems to be an emphasis on the "creative class". Will these people produce the things to be bought by the plumbers, HVAC repairmen, etc? I am amused that while there is a glorification of expensive artisanal food,produced by the creative class, the organic milk farmers are having a hard time maintaining their herds because people cannot afford to spend $5.00 on a half-gallon of milk.

Chris Maisano said...

If you get a chance to read the book, you'll see that Crawford gives Richard Florida, the guy who came up with the "creative class" idea, a well-deserved box on the ears. You're right to point out the limitations of the so-called "creative economy," which are quite clear here in New York where redevelopment based on that concept only encourages increasing gentrification and undermines the livelihoods of poor and working class people.