Untimely Observations

Something Worth Doing (Part II)


The first part of this piece, here, discussed Hanna Rosin's recent piece for The Atlantic, titled "The End of Men."

Part II: Shop Class as Soulcraft, "Idiot Work" and Other Observations

We are pre-occupied with demographic variables, on the one hand, and sorting into cognitive classes, on the other. Both collapse the human qualities into a narrow set of categories, the better to be represented on a checklist or a set of test scores. This simplification serves various institutional purposes. Fitting ourselves to them, we come to understand ourselves in the light of the available metrics, and forget that institutional purposes are not our own.

-- Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

As a young man, Matthew B. Crawford developed an interest in repairing automobiles and motorcycles. The son of a physicist, he found that there was a difference between his father’s abstract, theoretical understanding of things and the tacit, real-world knowledge of the experienced gearheads he bumped elbows with at the shop. He worked his way though parts of college as an electrician, and found the work to be both satisfying and mentally engaging.

After picking up a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, he took his place as a “knowledge worker,” writing abstracts-by-formula for a company that indexed scholarly articles. His more esteemed job paid less, and was somehow less mentally engaging. The work lacked integrity, because in his words, it “could not be animated by the goods that were intrinsic to it.” His company produced products (abstracts), but the company was owned by a media conglomerate, and those products were merely a set of numbers in that company’s portfolio of holdings. The quality of the abstract itself didn’t matter; it didn’t really even matter if he understood what he was writing about, and the quantity of abstracts demanded guaranteed that even a smart guy like Crawford could never really be invested in what he was doing. It was busy work, and it encouraged a kind of lackadaisical attitude among his co-workers. One fellow confessed to him that he was doing heroin on the job.

Crawford eventually went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in the history of political thought. He took a high paying job at a Washington, D.C. think tank, and was tasked with coming up with scholarly-sounding arguments that “put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise.” Any honest person with a substantial vocabulary and an aptitude for fancy writing will tell you that it is easier to come up with dazzling bullshit than it is to actually think. (See also: “the art world”)

After five months at the think tank, Crawford quit and opened up his own motorcycle repair shop. An education in the “liberal” arts didn’t lead to anything as freeing as being a man who is directly accountable for the quality of his own work, solving the kinds of problems that can’t simply be talked away. A motorcycle either runs properly or it doesn’t. You end up with the satisfaction of actually having fixed something and the feeling that you earned your fee, or you to take responsibility for your inability to fix it and make it right with the customer.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford shows how work, beginning with manufacturing work but extending to today’s “knowledge work,” has been degraded by a separation between thinking and doing. He offers the example of a nineteenth century wheelwright, whose craft demanded that he know how to select trees and when to fell them, and whose skillfulness and ingenuity was tested by the unique characteristics of each piece of wood. The work was holistic; as he did the work, he had to think about the end product. There was a sense of individual agency in the work, and each wheel he completed was proof of the quality of his labor -- something he could be proud of. However, when the individual craftsman was replaced by factory assembly line, the work could no longer be holistic. The work of one man was separated into processes to be performed by many men, interchangeably. A series of steps that were once challenging and engaging became repetitive drudgery, the performance of a process. The expert, personal, tacit knowledge of the craftsman was replaced, often inadequately, by the documentation of his “process,” and the understanding of the whole was concentrated into the hands of a few who in most cases didn’t actually do the work and understood it only in the abstract. The systemizing of work into process has become the norm, and it applies to white collar work as well.

I have some personal experience in this area that I can add to Crawford’s. Many years ago, after bumming around in restaurants and stock rooms for a while, I decided it was time to reach for that brass ring and get myself a “grown up” job. I took a class on Excel (when that was still considered a “skill”) and landed a job as an “Operations Specialist I” in the manufacturing division of a software company. My manager was a woman who had made her career running manufacturing plants. She was a tough old suit-and-pearls broad who had to learn how to hold her own when female managers were still a rarity in her industry, but at the same time she was a maternal softy who took us all under her wing and even knitted scarves for some of the girls.

She taught me the basic theories that I took with me and applied over and over again for the next 8 years in various administration positions. You see what needs to be done, and what isn’t getting done right. Then you break it all apart into processes, create check steps and document it so anyone can step in and do anyone else’s job at a moment’s notice. You “idiot-proof” it. Then, though the nice lady never said it this way, you hire the idiots.

Crawford makes an interesting point about the word “idiot.” The original Greek root idiṓtēs means “private person, layman, person lacking skill or expertise.” An idiot is someone who is not mindful of their public role, someone who is unprofessional in the most meaningful sense of the word. A screw-up who isn’t engaged in his work. The roles in the systems we create are designed for idiots, so in some way we have to become idiots to fill those roles. As The Wizard said in Taxi Driver, “You get a job. You become the job.” 

Having your job dumbed-down so that any idiot can do it is bad enough, but as so many blue and white collar workers alike have discovered, idiots are everywhere and inexpensive, and even more so in Third World countries where life is especially cheap. The ability to export the work process is what makes it so easy to export jobs.

These idiot jobs are a collection of duties and chores, as assigned. There can be little sense of accomplishment in mastering most of these chores, because, after all, they were designed so that any idiot could do them. The mere fulfillment of duties is hardly fulfilling. The day-in, day-out repetition of chores and fulfillment of duties isn’t enough, on its own to keep a mind actively engaged, so the mind seeks other engagements.

This is where a disparity between the sexes occurs. Men, especially young men, often become restless, despondent or nihilistic. Or they go tribal. Some make the best of it and some do very well. It depends on the man and the job. But for many -- and this is something that countless films and television shows have already portrayed with accuracy and biting humor -- staring down forever in a cubicle feels like a mind-numbing prison sentence. High School, The Sequel.

If we look at a lot of the drone jobs out there for average folks as an extension of school, it starts to make sense why boys who aren’t doing well at school are also less excited about work. It’s not that they’re lazy, necessarily; it’s at least in part because many are looking for something worth doing. This isn’t a new problem, it’s just getting worse. It’s a complaint that’s been echoing through popular youth culture throughout the 20thCentury, from the 1950s rebel without a cause to the angsty punk rocker of the 1970s and the drugged latchkey boys of 1990s grunge.

Two hundred years ago, the same sort of boy would have been busy learning his father’s trade alongside him. He would have been learning how to work steel, how to build a house from timber, when to plant his crops, where to find the fish. Masculinity has an active, restless energy to it that wants to be tested, exerted, engaged and put to use. The mere execution of a repetitive process, whether in a factory or a cubicle, can’t possibly offer the dopamine and testosterone spikes that a man would get from aggressively testing himself against his environment or other men.

As Crawford’s quote above suggests, the mature, stoic masculinity of the past may have for many men been the natural result of manual competence and confidence founded in a proven mastery over their environments. The replaceable “idiot” must always walk on pins and needles. He has no sense of autonomy and he can offer no proof of his own worth, so he relies on the social approval of his “team” of co-workers for survival. Crawford explains how large corporations have taken the approach of allowing workers to control small, insignificant details of things -- like re-designing a Vonage display at Best Buy -- to simulate a autonomy and give employees a sense that what they do somehow matters and contributes directly to the success or failure of the collective enterprise. Managers become de facto therapists and are charged with creating a corporate culture where collective cheerleading for the sake of cheerleading and “getting everyone on the same page” is the norm.

Many women probably feel the same way about their jobs. I doubt that women are any more excited about performing an inane array of tasks than men are. But just as school teachers have an easier time handling them in the classroom, employers have an easier time placating females with workplace distractions. To begin with, girls make better cheerleaders. Mutual nurturing and emotional sharing is female territory, and it’s easier to get women to reach a collective emotional crescendo of ear-splitting cheerfulness over something that’s plainly trivial -- like a new policy or a sale or an upcoming company sponsored social event. Corporations have learned that job dissatisfaction and the costs of employee turnover can be mitigated by creating a rewarding social environment. In my experience, the modern female-heavy workplace is a gauntlet of parties, potlucks, themed dress-up or dress-down days, endless birthday cards, gossip, drama, gift baskets and Starbucks runs. The work isn’t engaging, but the sorority is. For the girls. The unconvinced fellas who roll their eyes like they did at every goofy high school pep rally are a big downer.

Crawford is probably a much smarter guy than I am, but we’re both reasonably intelligent and capable men who found that, depending on what field you’re in, a lot of the work today is actually designed for idiots, whether it sounds important or not. It’s a soul-killing, emotionally draining wasteland out there where the quality of the work you do matters less than how you say you feel about it, and how well you are able to disengage, play along and fulfill the process. Crawford found a way out by opening his own motorcycle shop, where every day presents a new problem that challenges his abilities and draws on his ever-growing body of knowledge about the endless complexities and quirks of different motorcycle engines exposed to countless variables of wear and tear.

A few years ago, having never used a ratchet in my life, I managed to get a job delivering and installing exercise equipment. I’m not as skilled as say, a plumber, but like a plumber I do something that other people don’t want to do. I carry 350 pound treadmills upstairs. I build home gyms that come in hundreds of pieces. I have calluses on my hands, I get dirty, I get bruised, I bleed. Every day, every home and every commercial facility offers its own challenges and my pal and I have to figure out how to get the job done. Every once in a while, we surprise ourselves and manage to do something I didn’t even think was possible and the job delivers that moment of win. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to do my job, and there are men who could probably do it better than I do. But after a while I gained a bit of that easy confidence Crawford wrote about, because I know what I’m doing, and my job could not be done by an Excel macro. There’s a sense of accomplishment to the work. Last week I installed NFL quality weight lifting cages into a high school gym. I built pieces of equipment that will be used by firefighters, policemen, the National Guard, and a bunch of little old ladies. And even though there are days when I’ll spend hours at a time carrying dumbbells or moving heavy pieces of equipment, I find that I am less tired when I get home from work, and I feel more alive than I did when I sat at a desk all day writing crafty passive-aggressive emails and coming up with new organizational protocols.

We will continue to need men who spend years in college training to be surgeons, structural engineers and so forth. Advanced theoretical training is absolutely essential for some professions. But finding ways to herd men into college so that they can participate in Rosin’s “post-industrial” economy probably isn’t the long-term solution to the “man-cession” we need. Her “post-industrial” economy is extremely vulnerable to all sorts of bubbles -- fuel, healthcare, cheap credit, strong currency -- and as I mentioned in the first part of this piece, until we are ruled by robots, we will always be dependent for our goods on an industrial economy somewhere. Instead of vying for these increasingly replaceable “idiot” jobs for “knowledge workers,” perhaps we should ask why we’re designing a society that outsources the kinds of work men often do well, and often like doing. If women want sitting and talking jobs, maybe we should start steering men with mechanical aptitudes or boys with “ADHD” into jobs where they actually DO something. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in our “post-industrial” world, and it would be a lot less invisible to us if we stopped acting like a bunch of entitled aristocrats while Mexicans do the work quietly under our noses. Americans are shockingly helpless when their “stuff” that they buy from somewhere doesn’t work.

In the movies, when disaster strikes, Joe the customer service representative suddenly becomes remarkably adept at dealing with the physical world. But that’s fantasy. A lot of the real work that needs to be done in the physical world requires knowing things that Joe never cared about and skills that Joe has never developed. Why are we going out of our way to make ourselves dependent on the labor and know-how of others? Why are we creating this society that, if Rosin is to be believed, alienates men and wastes the natural aptitudes of a substantial portion of our male population?

Crawford noted that “shop class” was preceded by the Arts and Crafts movement, itself a response to upper class bureaucratic ennui and a desire to reconnect with something real, something in the physical world -- to actually do something satisfying with one’s own hands. He also briefly mentioned hearing of rooftop chicken coops and gardens, a trend toward urban homesteading that has only increased since his book was published. This season, the first time since I moved into my building six years ago, people have set up mini-gardens all around the courtyard. Popular Mechanics recently ran an article about the “The New Homesteaders,” profiling people who are trying to live “off-grid and self-reliant.” There’s something in the air out there, a growing realization that the “post-industrial” society probably can’t last. What’s more, people are starting to realize that it doesn’t even really make them happy, that they’re losing touch with many of the activities that make them feel human.

This realization is creating a curious junction out there where the self-negating eco-hysterics of the far left meet and exchange ideas with the self-preserving survivalists of the far right. The underlying philosophies differ of course, but both groups seem to be praying for some kind of collapse or zombie apocalypse so that they can quit their crappy, numbing jobs on corporate campuses and start growing their own lettuce after the shit goes down. The left knows that keeping everything local is more practical and sustainable, and the right knows that humans are flawed and someone’s going to have to kill the bastards who want to steal the cauliflower. Beyond the Augustinian and Pelagian extremes of aggressive authoritarianism and passive empathy I see an underlying desire to return things to human scale, to reap what one sows, to see tangible results, to know that the things you do every day actually matter.

We’re building this dystopian “post-industrial” society based on the assumption that, for the majority of people, happiness and fulfillment means working to shop. This society assumes that safety is always preferable to risk, that dependence and security are more desirable than independence, that doing less is better than working harder -- that comfort, indulgence and shallow, narcissistic forms of self-expression are paramount.

I don’t really believe that women will be happier when wed to the state, but it’s easy to see why many women will continue to push in this direction and why they will adapt to this lifestyle more readily. It’s also easy to see why degrading work by removing personal investment, autonomy, holistic understanding and individual responsibility will encourage some of the worst character flaws associated with women. No dire predictions are needed here, because the future has already arrived. Few would argue that people have become more frivolous, gossipy, inconstant, insincere, self-absorbed, and given to magical thinking. Many would agree that American workers now feel entitled to a relatively luxurious lifestyle and substantial benefits, simply for showing up to work each day and completing their busy work. Some even believe that this should be their right, as if it the duty of employers – or someone -- to take care of them indefinitely. Low expectations are rampant and generally self fulfilling, so the impending idiocracy shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It is also easy to see why the daytime social scene of the modern post-industrial workplace would be naturally repellent to men who exhibit what were once thought to be the very best character traits. Men of integrity who want to be actively engaged in what they do and be held accountable for it, men who want to remain self-reliant, who want to and honest day’s work for fair pay -- decent, average men who are looking for something worth doing -- are increasingly finding themselves out of luck.

The silver lining is everyone’s worst nightmare. The post-industrial world probably isn’t sustainable. Americans probably can’t continue to buy everything and produce nothing forever. We can’t continue to reap what we don’t sow using money we’ll never pay back. If the doomsayers or the survivalist-junkies or the eco-hysterics are right, sooner or later the bottom is going to fall out. So, maybe the best thing men can do is focus on what they’re really good at – practical problem solving and mastering the physical world. Maybe they should focus on learning skills that are actually useful.

Because as the West folds into the Third World…we’re only going to need so many file clerks, perky customer service representatives and “knowledge workers.”