It begins: “Gentrification isn’t just taking place in working-class neighborhoods. It’s happening to jobs, too. Walk around parts of Brooklyn, Portland or Pittsburgh, and you’ll find stylish cocktail bars, barbers and the occasional butcher shop staffed by young, college-educated employees. For an affluent segment of today’s urban economy, these jobs have been revalued from low-status semi-manual labor to glamorous occupations, says sociologist Richard Ocejo.”
Ocejo, associate professor of sociology at John Jay College, also believes millennials are drawn to these occupations, in part, as a reaction to “the ephemerality of the digital age.” He does note the blue-collar jobs enjoying the most resurgence are those with an element of performance to them, where skills can be viewed and admired, so “some manual positions like electrician and plumber are unlikely to experience the same ‘revalorization.'”
The notion of giving up college – or ignoring one’s college degree – to pursue something more hands-on is gaining steam even in urban areas. It’s a real shame a college degree now has the undeserved cachet it does, because blue-collar jobs are abundant, dependable and often awesomely high-paying. Some construction companies are offering six-figure salaries for skilled labor. In such fields as butchers, electricians, plumbers, automobile upholsterers, etc., unemployment is virtually zero, and the ability to earn a living wage is extremely high.
So I’m pleased to see millennials re-examining their career options and considering alternatives to the high-debt, low-worth degrees coming out of colleges these days (the exception, as always, being STEM degrees).
But why – now, of all times – are younger people considering these previously low-status occupations? Why is being a butcher suddenly trendy? What’s the attraction in bartending? Why is hair cutting such a hot career all of a sudden?
“They’re taking the opportunity to do work that’s mental, manual and social,” notes Ocejo. “They can use their hands and bodies to actually make something, and they can also use their minds to create new things and to understand the principles, cultural history and philosophies behind what it is they do. Then, they’re able to communicate this knowledge and skill to the people they serve.”
“There’s a strong disaffection toward today’s economy,” Ocejo continued. “People don’t know where their place in it is. There’s less guidance for young workers about what they’re destined to do, and less stability in those jobs. All that is very unsettling, but these new jobs have the air of being stable, and at least they’re grounded in physical workplaces and practices, rather than being in the ether of the digital. That’s something a lot of people told me – they don’t want to work on computers. Days spent emailing or on videoconferences isn’t for them. They want to work with material things, and to have the kind of specialized knowledge that they can actually discuss the specialness of what they do, and to create new things.” [Emphasis added.]
Whether it’s coffee, alcohol, hair styling, cutting meat, carpentry, whatever – this younger generation is bringing an element of artistry to these fields. They’re discovering the pleasure of working with their hands, and the satisfaction of experiencing real life rather than digital life.
I can’t tell you how much this trend pleases me. We have WAY too many silly Social Justice Warriors who can’t even use a can opener. We don’t have nearly enough carpenters, butchers, tailors and other skilled people.
One of the laments of the older generation toward younger people is the shortage of real life skills. A Forbes article documents the number of millennials who don’t know how to cook, do basic mechanical maintenance (checking air pressure, changing the oil), sew, do home repairs, or navigate a city with a (paper) map.
In fact, Home Depot was going into something of a full-on panic when it realized an entire generation of Americans has absolutely no clue how to use their products. ZeroHedge notes how “the company has been forced to spend millions to create video tutorials and host in-store classes on how to do everything from using a tape measure to mopping a floor and hammering a nail. Home Depot’s VP of marketing admits she was originally hesitant because she thought some of their videos might be a bit too ‘condescending,’ but she quickly learned they were very necessary for our pampered millennials.”
Similarly, “Scotts Miracle-Gro has been forced to start training classes to remind frustrated millennials, who can’t seem to keep their flowers alive, that plants need sunlight to grow.”
As it turns out, millennials are becoming acutely aware of these deficiencies and are doing their best to make up for them. There is a call for high schools to go back to including classes in shop, carpentry, mechanics, sewing, and cooking. Adult “life skills” classes are wildly popular.
So, faced with these pathetic examples of helplessness and ignorance, I find it heartening beyond belief to find young people entering skilled, hands-on fields where they can bloom. In fact, some “bloom” literally, as the Washington Post reports a growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to become farmers (generally in the local, organic, sustainable food markets). These young agrarians are bringing enthusiasm and creativity to food production and finding high demand for their products. Living as I do amongst farmers (many of whom are getting older), this development pleases me no end.
Interestingly, the health benefits – both physical and mental – of working with one’s hands are becoming better known. In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” author Matthew Crawford argues the way we’ve come to devalue manual competence explains why so much modern work feels empty and unfulfilling.
According to the Guardian, “Crawford sees the dwindling of manual skills as part of something bigger and more alarming: a fundamental change in how we relate to our physical stuff. As consumers, most of us no longer make things, but buy them instead; we no longer fix things, but replace them. … We become passive and dependent, and more easily manipulable.”
To the young millennials who are exploring the wonderful world of physical labor, I extend the warmest welcome. The more you work, the less “manipulable” you’ll become.
Heck, you might even find yourself becoming conservative as you grow older. That way, you can work with your brain as well as your hands.