The tarnishing of Wall Street and the breakout success of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford, the doctoral degree-holder who left academia to become a motorcycle repairman, are probably no coincidence.
As corporate America has shed millions of jobs, Crawford’s philosophical musings on the spirit-restoring value of working with his hands touched a big nerve, quickly becoming a national best-seller and generating widespread publicity.
It was not the only sign that recession-pummeled Americans are indulging in a romance with blue-collar trades, while also questioning the hollowness of white-collar work.
Besides “Soulcraft,” whose subtitle is “An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist, offered a tribute to artisans last year in “The Craftsman.” Reality shows like “Deadliest Catch,” featuring commercial crab fishermen, and “Ice Road Truckers,” following drivers hauling loads across frozen waters in northern Canada and Alaska, have drawn huge audiences.
The local-food movement has inspired countless people to plant vegetable gardens, while in California the so-called Maker Movement attracts tinkerers and people interested in crafts to festivals where they exchange tips about building and repairing thousands of things, from rewiring iPods to fixing bicycles. Not since the back-to-the-land days of the 1960s and ’70s has there been such a rose-colored view of working with your hands.
“I understand the interest in the trade resurgence, which is partly nostalgia and partly a real and visceral issue in people’s lives,” said Russ Rymer, a writer and fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, who is working on a book about violin-bow makers. “The nostalgia aspect is evident — we’re feeling ephemeral and remembering wistfully a time when we made things. And our less tangible industries — finance and investment banking, say — have disgraced themselves in our eyes, and so we turn to a purportedly more honorable line of work.”
Whether this nostalgia translates into an actual shift in people’s careers has yet to be seen. Current government employment data does not track white-collar workers entering blue-collar jobs or training for skilled trades. Skeptics doubt that the romancing of manual labor will lead to a permanent realignment of the American work force.
Nonetheless, cultural critics like Crawford say a change is afoot, driven by a kind of collective soul-searching, growing frustration with mind-numbing, abstract office work and disillusionment with corporate America.
In a new book, “Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America,” the novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen predicts that “careers manipulating money will no longer be so seductive to a disproportionate share of our best and brightest.”
For his public radio show “Studio 360,” Andersen interviewed about a dozen people switching from white-collar careers to jobs using their hands in fields like cooking, building, art and design, including one who left real estate development to make wood objects. “It’s easy to be a skeptic and say this isn’t going to amount to anything,” he said in an interview. “I’m skeptical of utopians of any stripe, but having read about and seen how cultural shifts really do happen out of aggregate choices, I think this is real.”
One person who downshifted from a white-collar career is Monty Wilson, 44, who had earned an economics degree and raced up the ladder into a job in finance for one of the world’s largest banks, which he declined to name. But eventually he longed for something else, he said. He could woo a client for months, then easily find himself losing the client to another bank.
When times were good, he earned as much as $200,000 a year, he said, but this year he saw the obvious: Clients in his department, aircraft financing, were fleeing. In June he resigned to pursue a decade-old fantasy of working for himself and working with his hands, and bought a wood-floor finishing business in Dallas, where he was based for the bank.
Now his navy blue and gray suits hang in his closet. He wears cargo shorts and golf shirts to work.
“I wake up excited in the morning,” said Wilson, who has taken a big pay cut and whose wife has gone back to work as a teacher to help support their three children under 13. He hopes that one day he will be able to earn what he did in the white-collar world.
“I am having fun and learning again,” he said. “Floors are living, breathing things. They expand when it gets humid, and they contract when it gets dry, and every floor is different.”
Even as the unemployment rate hovers at 9.4 percent, some skilled trades like welding and pipefitting are in high demand now, among the jobs that cannot be filled with unskilled labor or outsourced overseas. The construction industry is expected to recover and generate more demand for trained electricians, plumbers and carpenters, according to a report last month by the President’s Council on Economic Advisers.
Still, if pressed, many white-collar workers musing about working with their hands might balk at the hard labor and, for skilled trades, the training necessary for these jobs, not to mention pay cuts and changes in ways of living.