Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A future for work?

This week – just before most of us will be taking holiday over Christmas and New Year - I want to think a bit about the nature of work, and its future.

In The Guardian of 5 December, Ian Jack titled his column – with some deliberate provocation to Guardian readers – ‘Would you want your son to be a plumber?’. For any non-UK readers, I should explain the particular provocativeness of this: The Guardian is read very largely by educated middle-class readers who would probably expect their children to go to university. Furthermore, Guardian readers are pretty politically right-on and might well exclaim: ‘Why just my son? What about my daughter?’

Jack goes on to discuss our obsession with university education, and Britain’s lack of skilled manual labour. He writes:
‘At some point in the short history of out “post-industrial” complacency I now looks as though we got the future of work wrong . . . Many of the so-called “quality” jobs could easily migrate abroad . . . and could be sent down the wire . . . not every task can be virtualised . . . We still need plumbers, carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics. You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.’
Jack goes on to discuss a new book by Matthew Crawford (already out in the USA under the title Shop Class to Soulcraft – which doesn’t convey much to a European audience that doesn’t use the term ‘shop class’); due out in the UK in May 2010, published by Penguin, under the title The Case for Working with Your Hands: or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels goodAn article by Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands’, is available on the New York Times website.

Manual trades have suffered a continuing loss of respect, and Britain is notorious in this respect. Engineers in Germany, for instance, have high status compared with their colleagues in Britain. Sociologists have researched and written about the effect this has on the men (and it still is largely men) who work in manual trades. I saw an example of this when I was having my solar hot water panels fitted (see blog post dated 2 December): the very skilled, knowledgeable and proficient plumber/heating engineer, who was leading the installation team, remarked (while we were talking about something to do with education): “Fat lot of good it’s done me – I’m still just a plumber.” The word ‘just’ here is telling.

Perhaps the most famous study of ‘ordinary people’ working was undertaken in the USA by Studs Terkel in his now-classic book Working (1974) (full title: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do). Repeatedly we read of people who don’t necessarily resent or dislike the actual work that they do, but they do resent the way they are treated, by the bosses and sometimes by the public – as units of labour, not as human beings. More recently, Richard Sennett has written movingly about The Hidden Injuries of Class - and of course perceptions of social class are inextricably bound up with the ways people earn their living. Most recently, Sennett has written about the importance, and the joy, of manual crafts in his book The Craftsman.

I think, in this context, of the local man that I employ from time to time as a ‘handyman’ or ‘odd job man’ – neither of these titles does the tiniest fraction of justice to his versatility, skill, inventiveness, knowledge and experience. Significantly, there is no available title to cover adequately what he does. He’s an educated man, who worked for years in ‘white collar’ jobs but, after several successive redundancies, decided to become self-employed. He’s one of those people who is ‘good with his hands’, and has always been able to make things and mend things, and has acquired a lifetime of useful experience and skill. Just a few examples: he erected the fence along the side of my garden, made the gate, and helped me plant the fruit trees;

he made the frame on the top of my shed to hold the troughs, which now have onions and garlic growing in them – in a tiny garden like mine, growing space can’t be wasted!

He made this multi-occupancy insect-overwintering palace for me - after I saw one at Pensthorpe Nature Reserveand came home with a photo, saying : ‘I want one of these’ !

He’s cleaned out gutters and fixed up water butts. Inside my house, he’s made shelves, insulated the loft, enlarged the loft-hatch and installed a drop-down ladder for access, fixed plumbing leaks, replaced taps . . . and a string of other bits and pieces that I can no longer recall. Why isn’t there a respectful job title for what he does?

In contrast, my brother is a silversmith/goldsmith – a respected title because he works with ‘precious metals’, and what he does is 'art' rather than 'utility'. But if you work with steel, you’re just a metal-basher. It happens that my brother can also make or fix anything, but he doesn’t earn his living doing that.

In her 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor (made into a film in 1981), Doris Lessing writes of a future
a few years hence, when barbarism is what is normal, and each of us has to fight for survival - men, women, and even little children who are so brutalised by necessity they are more frightening than the ferocious adults. From her windows the narrator watches things fall apart, sees the migrating hordes seethe past in search of safety, the shelter, the good life that is always somewhere else - far from the anarchy of this emptying city where people huddle together in tribes for self-defense, where plants and animals are taking over deserted streets and houses.
One aspect of the story, almost incidental, is the way that the young people have learned how to fix things that are broken, to scavenge old equipment and build new things from the parts. But, looking at the story now, this isn’t incidental – as so often with Lessing, she articulates crucial issues before most of the rest of us have woken up to them.

So, back to my title – what of the future of work? We must stop telling young people that a university education will necessarily fit them either to live or to earn their living. Sure, go to university if you’re passionate about something, and enjoy discovering more about it. But also, learn a useful trade. Some university courses teach useful skills – engineering in all its forms, human and veterinary medicine, agriculture and horticulture, soil and environmental sciences, for instance. But in a world where the combination of climate change and peak oil threaten the infrastructure we have come to rely on totally, there are practical skills which will serve our young people far better as they move into adulthood and middle age:
  • building, carpentry and woodworking, pottery, metalworking;
  • spinning and weaving, knitting and sewing;
  • animal husbandry;
  • growing food and cooking from scratch with raw ingredients, without a conventional oven;
  • handling heavy horses;
  • fixing things that are broken.
And there are ‘soft skills’ – conflict transformation, leadership, community-building; singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument, and being able to lead others in these recreations; care of elderly, sick and disabled people, and of very young children. The list could go on – the various BBC TV series on The Victorian Kitchen Garden, and The Victorian Kitchen, start to give an idea of the range of skills and change of attitudes that we need to start taking seriously.

Just for the joy of it, take a look at an article about, and website of, Robin Wood the only person in Britain (it is thought) still earning a living from turning wooden bowls on a traditional pole lathe.

I’m taking a 2-week break now, back on Wednesday or Thursday, 6 or 7 January.

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