Kelefa Sanneh writes about the value of real work in this week’s New Yorker. Not a new idea, but his review of Matthew Craford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (excerpted in the NY Times Magazine, here), is well placed and well-timed. The argument is a simple one: our culture has dismissed the value of “real work” – specifically motorcycle repairmen, in this case – for the pursuit of white-collar office jobs that are usually (but not always) better paying, and supposedly more satisfying pursuits:
It seems that every generation discovers anew what Crawford has discovered: that work is—that we are—stupid and getting stupider. In “The Wealth of Nations,” which appeared in 1776, Adam Smith argued that while professional specialization broadened the economic activity of a society, it narrowed the lives of workers themselves…If boring labor is a threat to one’s humanity, it stands to reason that interesting labor can be a form of redemption.
The article reminded me of a great TED talk by Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame. It’s well worth 20 minutes if you’ve been, you know, thinking about your life’s worth lately. This drive away from real work is pushing more kids into 4-year colleges, when our nation’s most important academic engines – community and technical colleges – are more affordable and effective purveyors of actual skills for many people. Most college graduates then look with scorn on electricians and car repairmen- or at least at the idea of being one of them. The jobs aren’t worthy of a degree, they aren’t “important” enough.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with fulfililng work in a cubicle. But if it ain’t satisfying, no salary is worth ending up like this guy.