Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rethinking Work, Reconnecting with the Material World

I’m entering my 23rd year of schooling. For almost 23 consecutive years, I have been enrolled in some type of formal education. At some point soon, there won’t be a higher credential I can achieve. I’m proud of these scholastic accomplishments, which are derived from a constellation of luck, privilege, hard work, and a cerebral disposition. However, my long school career has also recently caused a small crisis within me.

In many ways, I’m a poster child of the new economy. I embody “lifelong learning,” literally, and have become skilled in the management of information. If our economy has become structured around the production of knowledge, my career path has positioned me squarely in America’s emerging “industrial” heartland: research universities. I can speak fluently about data and I am one of those innumerable people in the beltway who can consider consulting legitimate work.

But it’s that last word, work, that troubles me. Most of my work deals with the intangible. I spend hours in front of a computer or talking about abstract things. As a result, I have developed a rather detached relationship with the material world. And, despite the fact that I’m not doing manual labor, I’m inexplicably drained at the end of each work day. I haven’t quite decided if my exhaustion is physical or spiritual. Yet the feeling is unmistakable, and I think the implications can be severe.

Most importantly, I have a feeling that I’m not alone here. Perhaps as I write out some the implications, what I have to say will resonate with you.

1. Matthew Crawford is one of the writers who helped me understand my crisis and crystalized my desire to make a few changes. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, he makes the case for re-discovering what was once weaved into the fabric of American society: making and fixing things. Although I’m very well educated, I have virtually no knowledge of how the things I use daily are made, or how to fix them if they break. This means that I face a common conundrum all the time. Either I pay someone to fix my things, with little knowledge of what the work entails or how much it should cost. Or I buy a new thing. Many companies have come to rely upon the latter choice, purposely designing products to be quickly replaced by people who, like me, are detached from the material world (this one goes out to you, Apple lovers).

2. We tend to think that “knowledge work” is somehow more intellectually demanding and rewarding than skilled work with our hands. At minimum, we valorize occupations that require higher learning and largely accept myriad media messages telling us that manual laborers are stupid or unambitious. Now, I’m not saying that college is a bad idea (read all my other posts), or that so-called “white collar” jobs are over-valued. I’m also not guiltily suggesting that labor is glamorous. Rather, we should realize that there has been a systematic effort to de-intellectualize the trades. One result of this, as Mike Rowe eloquently suggested in his Senate testimony, is that there is a vast skilled labor gap in America. This gap provides true evidence that the knowledge economy may be more rhetorical than real. There are swaths of jobs that require people who can build, weld, and repair. Information technology will never make them obsolete. They will be increasingly in demand.

3. Lastly, the environmental consequences of the previous two points are hard to miss. Consumption is easier if you don’t stop to think about how things are made and don’t bother to fix them. And consumption is the lifeline of our economy. I have written in a previous post about the origins of the recent revitalization of interest in all things “craft,” “local,” and “authentic.” I think it has something to do with a spiritual fullness that comes with reconnecting to real things. The satisfaction that comes from restoring a piece of discarded furniture, making your own beer, or growing your own vegetables isn’t just a social or cultural phenomenon. It is hardwired into our physical constitution. For this reason, a life spent immersed in the intangible will always feel incomplete.

So, what does a 28-year-old who can read, write, and analyze but can’t make or fix anything do to reconnect with the material world? This question has captured my attention for the past 5 months, with no easy answers. At my most extreme moments, I’ve considered telling my doctoral dissertation to “f*ck off” because no one will probably read it in any case. After I collect myself, I try to remember that my professional work is not what defines me—and, truth be told, I’ve mostly enjoyed writing my dissertation, even though its ridiculously abstract. Beyond this reminder, I’ve toyed around with a few ideas that I’m hoping to further explore...

First, I think there are a number of people out there who want to make and fix things. A two-hour conversation with friends convinced me of this. Not exactly a representative sample, but my position stands. There’s actually an entire Maker Movement, although many of its adherents are interested in electronics. The problem is that there are few places to learn how to fix things. Some people would probably argue that you just have to jump in and, with the right amount curiosity, you will learn over time. I can’t dispute this. But I think for many people my age, with a background like mine, it would be far easier if there was a welcoming place dedicated to informal, fun instruction in how to make and fix things. This is especially true of people living in cities, which are rich in bars and jobs, but—let’s face it—more oriented to consuming things than preserving them. I have in my mind a workshop space for re-educating the over-schooled.

Second, on a more personal level, I’ve decided to take a few concrete steps in the hopes that the alleviate some of my crisis. The first is to talk with and learn from makers. They are out there. My dad, for reasons that years ago escaped me, is an expert canner, makes his own sausage and bacon, and has always built from scratch his computers. My father-in-law knows how to lay carpet, tile floors, put a new roof on his house, and do other mundane things that now seem remarkable to me.

The second is to try and fix my things when they break. Seems simple, right? Think about the last time you sat down and actually tried to fix something you own. Chances are, it’s been awhile. Most things are probably beyond my ability to fix—but, at least initially, it’s the effort that counts. I’m trying to salvage and learn, rather than discard and kick the can down the road for future generations.

The third is to not seek out a job that carries undue prestige in this economy—if it’s is not truly, directly helping someone or producing something real, its value, in my mind should be interrogated.

The final thing is to talk about these issues with others. I’ve been trying to raise this topic with other people to gauge if it’s a manifestation of some momentary madness. Regardless, I think the issue merits reflection. Correct me if I’m wrong.