Are Blue-Collar Jobs More Noble?

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To hear Matthew Crawford tell it, he's discovered a grand new truth of life. And that is: contrary to conventional belief, there is great nobility--far greater, even, than can be found in the white-collar world--in the more fundamental trades in life. The kind of work publicized in shows like "Dirty Jobs." And the kind that Crawford himself, despite his PhD education, has chosen: that of a motorcycle mechanic. 


Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft was released last week, and an excerpt was published in last week's New York Times Sunday magazine. And given our collective horror at the excesses of the white-collar denizens of Wall Street, whose hubris and disregard for consequences contributed to bringing down a global economy, Crawford's argument seems particularly sound and appealing at the moment.

But there are several major flaws with Crawford's case, as he presents it. First, he looks at his own personal--and limited--experience in both the white-collar and blue-collar worlds and draws far-reaching conclusions as if there were no other possible experience beyond his own. 

Second, Crawford overlooks the fact that he doesn't just work with his hands, in a "trade." He works for himself. Some of his satisfaction in his work, and the lessons and ethics that accompany it, come from being an entrepreneur with a huge degree of control over his work and standards, and a direct link and responsibility to a product and a customer, instead of being just a cog in a very big wheel. Many of his rants against the white-collar world would be more accurately directed toward any job that's a cog in a bureaucratic machine, where efficiency tops quality and the worker has no control. Factory work comes to mind as an example of that just as easily as middle-management. Likewise, many of the satisfactions he derives from his work would be well understood by entrepreneurs of many stripes and colors. (A career track, it's important to note, that only about 10% of the population has the desire or personality to pursue.)

Further, many of Crawford's complaints about the white-collar world would be applicable only to bad white-collar jobs, and bad white-collar managers. There is no mention of white-collar professionals who lose sleep at night trying to make sure they get their jobs right, or exhaust their brains trying to figure out the cause of a problem, or feel elation at finally cracking the code on some important stumbling block or flaw. At the end of the day, I was left with an impression of someone writing through a lens warped by both an idealized view of manual labor, and a need to justify his own life choices, without a view to other perspectives on the subject.

Which is not to say Crawford doesn't have any points at all. 

Our idealized image about the nobility of "real work" is not a new phenomenon. America has had a love affair with people--and particularly men--who do physical labor for a long time. And, yes, many in the white-collar class have harbored a trace of envy for the satisfaction they imagine comes with more visibly consequential work. Not to mention the satisfaction of being your own boss. Hence the mythic fascination with, and idealization of, the American Cowboy. 

America also has a very rich history of respect for the craftsman. There is an art form to creating something with your hands, carefully and with great skill, whether it's furniture, pottery, sculpture, woodwork, glasswork, music, or restoration of any antique, whether mechanical or artistic in nature. 

As for the importance and satisfaction of working with your hands in terms of the lessons it imparts ... I offer Thomas Jefferson's ideal vision of the "gentleman farmer." It's not a new idea that a balance between the world of ideas and the world of practical, tangible work creates a more well-rounded citizen. Most of us--even the most hardened city intellectuals--also understand the satisfaction that comes with a tangible, measurable, complete-able task, and the relief that can come from immersion in a less complicated and ephemeral activity. They might not work on motorcycles, but most of the people I know who work in the world of ideas find relief in their spare time through some kind of physical endeavor: home renovation, cooking, gardening, or sports. And I don't think it's coincidence. 

Are there just as many mechanics who spent their weekends perusing the pages of great literature or discussing intellectually challenging ideas for balance? For sure, there are some. A few years ago, I was up in Alaska researching a story about the diminishing salmon industry in the town of Yakutat--a community of 800 souls whose roads stopped a mile outside of town. Nothing from the outside world made it to Yakutat except by barge or airplane, One afternoon, I went for a ride to an outlying barrier island with one of the local commercial fishermen. We were zipping across the bay in an outboard-powered dory when out of the blue, salt water spraying in his face, the fisherman turned and asked me, "Do you ever read John McPhee's stuff?" "You mean the New Yorker writer?" I asked. "Yeah," he said, nodding. "I really like his work." 

But in my own heady, idealistic days of imagining the nobility of cowboys, adventurers, and all things "real," I, too, left the academic world I'd grown up in for the far more tangible world of manual labor and physical challenge. In my case, it wasn't motorcycles. It was airplanes, and the restoration of old airplanes ... although a lot of the pilots I knew also owned and worked on motorcycles, so I'm pretty versed in that field, as well. I spent the better part of 15 years immersed in the world of blue-collar mechanics. And when I look back on all the things that time of my life taught me, I find that it's not nearly as simple or clean-cut as Matthew Crawford presents. 

Is there satisfaction and learning that comes from tangible involvement with something that has immediate, real-world consequences? Absolutely. Get something wrong on an airplane, and the pilot doesn't just pull over to the side of the road. He or she comes out of the sky. The lessons are graphic, visceral, and unforgettable. And so, often, are the rewards. I've seen a pile of scrap metal transformed into a living, breathing aircraft that lifts effortlessly off the ground as if reborn. I've watched craftsmen ply their trade, skill and artistry in ways that left me silent in wonder. I've known people who live by a very rock-solid code of giving a friend in need the shirt off their back.

But I've also found many people as disgruntled about their lot as in any white-collar job. I've found disconcertingly narrow, parochial, and uninformed views of the world beyond the shop or airport. I've watched the same people who'd give a friend the shirt off their back utter horrifying racial or ethnic epithets against people they'd never even met. 

In the end, we're probably all at risk of distortion when we idealize anything. Real life is rarely, if ever, that unidimensional or simple. As for the type of work that's most "noble," I think I side with William Allan Neilson, the president of Smith College from 1917 - 1939. I don't even know for sure that he's the one who said this particular line. But my grandmother, who went to Smith but then became crippled and a single mother in the Depression and ended up doing a lot of different jobs to keep food on the table, used to quote him as saying, "It is the worker who ennobles the job, not the job that ennobles the worker." Soulcraft, in other words, is not just the province of shop class. It is found anywhere we choose to practice it.  
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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