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You Are Not an Artisan
July 13, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

"So long as you stop thinking in terms of crafts and aim to practice a trade instead, there is more work for humans than people realize... When people talk about saving work or jobs, they mostly talk about saving sexy, income-generating conspicuous production packaged as creative work, in a debt-fueled de facto leisure society." Writer and speaker Venkatesh Rao weighs in on the difference between "Sexy Jobs and Schlub Jobs," and what it means for the future of work. For a slightly different take, see The Death of the 'Prestige Economy'
posted by verb (56 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Apologies, that list link "The Death of the Prestige Economy" is really just a frame for/pointer to a meatier piece, "Why You Should Not Have Taken That Prestigious Internship." Probably doesn't require an edit to the story, but it's worth pointing out for those who want to jump straight to the full piece.
posted by verb at 9:40 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am a little taken aback with:

What’s the difference between a tradesman and an artisan? Think chimney-sweep versus bard as the extremes of the spectrum. Both are archetypes that mostly disappeared with late industrialization in the early twentieth century, thanks in part to automation, but there the similarities end.

If you like in a house with a fireplace (not that uncommon in the places I have lived), you will eventually need a chimney-sweep. There is a pretty good chance there are chimney sweeps in your city right now. And technology has made the bard more common than ever, although we call them popular musicians. Or, if you want to hang onto the poliical angle, spin-doctors and speech writers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:47 AM on July 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


I'd be really, really interested to see some broad statistics on internships by industry. Because what I've overwhelmingly noticed is that unpaid internships - i.e. those that don't pay in either cash or college credit - are de rigeur only for certain kinds of sexy jobs that are most notable for being attractive to the artistically, journalistically, or philanthropically-minded. In other words, exactly the kind of people most likely to very eloquently complain about stuff online.

My job is fairly "sexy" (i.e. it pays a lot and primarily involves thinking). We pay undergraduate interns $12k a summer and they are not expected to make meaningful impact on our business. My firm is actually on the low-end of compensation for summer interns among our competitors. I am slightly outside of the age group here, but in a very "sexy" industry (PR) I had a $12/hr internship in 2007.

Admittedly these are anecdotes, but when I hear people complain about unpaid internships, it's primarily people who want to be reporters (or worse, opinion writers), or museum curators, or development directors at a cool nonprofit. I guess I'm just wondering how many of those people there really are.
posted by downing street memo at 9:57 AM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Artisan? These days all that word means is "prepare to overpay."
posted by jonmc at 10:08 AM on July 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


I was all set to get all up in arms about the first article, but then my brain went *click* and I realized that it is actually an article about work specifically in tech and related sectors, and isn't actually examining the economy and workplace as a whole.

Even when I was doing artisan work, it was actually schlubb work. I worked in a jewelry production house, making high end product for sale through things like American Express and stuff. It was great, creative, fun... but I also personally set diamonds in 5200 of one single style of ring. So, basically, a production line factory job. Just, a bit more fun than assembling radios or whatnot.

At this point in my life, I have a job I really love (well, in every way except for the pay). It's warehouse work -- basically I pick things up and put them down again all day for a living. At the age of 45, I have more energy than I ever used to have, I've lost 30 lbs of ugly belly fat, I've started building a chest and shoulders on my ectomorph frame for the first time. At 5, I get to clock out and walk away from everything. If I could get them to raise my pay to something above "barely scraping by", I'd want to keep this job until I die.

Anyway, that's all just an aside. These articles aren't about the broad spectrum of the makeup of the universal workforce -- they are specific to tech and related jobs.
posted by hippybear at 10:09 AM on July 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


I don't know your industry either (although I have a close relative who took an unpaid PR intern job in one of the largest US cities, with a large, established firm), but 2007 was an entirely different world as far as the American economy goes, practically.
posted by raysmj at 10:10 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, entirely possible. It's just that all these articles ever really talk about are fields important to the hyper-connected, intelligent, well-educated digerati (in the linked interview, the only specific examples are The Atlantic and Newsweek, which are allegedly now so awful as to no longer carry weight as a line on the resume). What's the internship situation in, say, accounting? Or law enforcement? Or logistics? I honestly don't know.
posted by downing street memo at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Admittedly these are anecdotes, but when I hear people complain about unpaid internships, it's primarily people who want to be reporters (or worse, opinion writers), or museum curators, or development directors at a cool nonprofit.

Understanding that anecdotes are neither the singular of "data" nor a substitute for broad statistics on internships by industry, I suggest you talk to law students, or lawyers who graduated from law school in 2011 or after. Maybe BigLaw still pays their summer associates, but those positions were always competitive to begin with, and first-year associate hires are way down. And at least in my experience, nonprofit, public-interest law firms have *never* paid their interns. In fact, some places will only take interns who are receiving money via a foundation stipend. And of course, if the lawyer-to-be is earning credit for her internship, then she is paying tuition to her university.

This doesn't just happen in law, where even public interest lawyers are reminded that they possess a potentially high-paying skill set, even if they themselves are not using those skills in a higher-paying job. After I graduated from culinary school in 1999, I went on the usual post-graduate blizzard of job interviews. One interview was at a bakery in Queens. When I asked about the pay rate (the industry standard in NYC at the time being around $6-7/hour), the owner told me that he would be putting me on an extended stage -- a/k/a an unpaid probationary period -- and only after I completed six weeks of stage would he pay me what he thought I deserved to be paid. I thanked him for his time and told him that I'd rather work someplace where I didn't have to wait six weeks before being paid minimum wage.
posted by bakerina at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was all set to get all up in arms about the first article, but then my brain went *click* and I realized that it is actually an article about work specifically in tech and related sectors, and isn't actually examining the economy and workplace as a whole.

I think you nailed it. Since I read it, I've been frustrated with a number of different aspects of the article, but nailing down the specifics has felt slippery. I think that his tendency to extrapolate lessons from the tech and related sectors -- as the author does in several instances -- is indicative of a much bigger blind spot than any he points out in his analysis.

The discussions of "what jobs people really mean when they talk about saving jobs" is accurate if you're talking exclusively about "people at the tippy-top of Maslow's hierarchy." The history of the labor movement wasn't about self-actualization. The fact that even the well-heeled self-appointed creatives can feel automation nipping at their heels is unsurprising for anyone who thinks about the workings of markets.
posted by verb at 10:17 AM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Discussing the sexy vs. schleppy distinction as though it were driven by arrogant workers seeking status misses something vital: that almost all the unpleasant aspects of the job that don't involve the actual work itself are much better in sexy jobs. That's not a coincidence; not only do high-status jobs attract workers with the resources to demand better working conditions, but centuries-old prejudices lead managers to treat people like them differently from people in schleppy jobs.

A schleppy job that includes autonomy, respect, a living wage, and fair and thoughtful management is a very different beast than a schleppy job in which the employee is treated like a child and cheated at every turn. There are a few industries in which good blue collar jobs do exist for non-entrepreneurs, but they're increasingly rare.

So long as schleppy jobs require peeing in a cup and sexy jobs offer per diem travel reimbursement, convincing the disaffected youth to embrace schleppy jobs will be a hard sell.
posted by eotvos at 10:18 AM on July 13, 2013 [73 favorites]


I think Rao is frequently wrong, but at least he's never boring. That goes a long way with me.
posted by atrazine at 10:18 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


FWIW, I think that the Sarah Kendzior interview that verb links in his first comment is much better at taking a wider view of "work" than just extrapolating lessons from the tech sector.
posted by bakerina at 10:20 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Weren't chimney sweeps stereotypically very poor, often exploited street urchins? There will always be scut work, but why would we expect it to be well paid?

What makes it worse is that in an economy based on a fiat currency

Yellow alert. Set condition two throughout the fleet.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:22 AM on July 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


Discussing the sexy vs. schleppy distinction as though it were driven by arrogant workers seeking status misses something vital: that almost all the unpleasant aspects of the job that don't involve the actual work itself are much better in sexy jobs. That's not a coincidence; not only do high-status jobs attract workers with the resources to demand better working conditions, but centuries-old prejudices lead managers to treat people like them differently from people in schleppy jobs.

I think that's a really good point. Dismissing 'status' as a luxury item ignores our nature as hierarchical animals. Even if you can get yourself to ignore it, others will not.

Even when I had a poorly paid internship in a 'sexy' job, nobody would say a thing if I went to a dentist appointment or had a long lunch during the work-day. That's not usually true in low-status jobs precisely because they are low-status.

Yellow alert. Set condition two throughout the fleet.

Stand down. I know what you mean but he's not a gold-bug/Randian type and he doesn't think there's anything wrong with fiat currencies.
posted by atrazine at 10:25 AM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Weren't chimney sweeps stereotypically very poor, often exploited street urchins? There will always be scut work, but why would we expect it to be well paid?

The chimney sweep I hired a couple of winters ago (should probably call him again for this upcoming winter, too) was QUITE well paid for his 2-3 hours of work in my house. Perhaps this is now a case of "we don't need as many of them, so we don't have to exploit the poor and unknowing to get the job done", but modern-day chimney sweeps aren't poor, nor are they street urchins.
posted by hippybear at 10:25 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Modern day chimney sweeps are artisans.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:27 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


when I hear people complain about unpaid internships, it's primarily people who want to be reporters (or worse, opinion writers), or museum curators, or development directors at a cool nonprofit.

I see an embarrassing number of Craigslist job listings for unpaid interns in for-profit totally capitalistic non-prestige industries. I don't know about "sexy" vs. "schlub", and usually the listing is trying to make this restaurant or web startup or commercial production house sound "sexy" and thus internship worthy when it's actually just unpaid labor.

FWIW, I've made my career in a "sexy" field where unpaid internships are common. That said, our internships typically last a couple of months and lead directly to paid work. They're also typically actually educational. Part of the reason they're so common is that it's a field that really does need some contextualizing and on-the-job training.
posted by Sara C. at 10:39 AM on July 13, 2013


The chimney sweep represents schlep work. Dull, check. Dirty, check. Dangerous, check. No bard options in the posterity memeplex economy

Someone tell Dick van Dyke. We've had interns at all the companies I've worked at and in each case it's been educational with a view to possible employment.
posted by arcticseal at 10:54 AM on July 13, 2013


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: What makes it worse is that in an economy based on a fiat currency

Yellow alert. Set condition two throughout the fleet.


Stand down yellow alert. This is a bold new economic model based around the exchange of shitty italian cars.
posted by dr_dank at 10:58 AM on July 13, 2013 [16 favorites]


Note: the OP has confused "schlep" and "schlub", and many of the comments here echo that confusion. Schlepping is the 99% perspiration that is required to turn inspiration into reality. "Schlub" is just an insult. Rao is not insulting anybody.

Paul Graham popularized the use of the word "schlep" in a startup context (warning: entrepreneur wankery).
posted by nixt at 11:08 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


He makes some good points, but his argument breaks down once you try to categorize actual jobs as "schleppy" or "sexy". Just one example : he refers to "data cleaning" as schlep work. Yet, what if that data you're cleaning is peoples' DNA? Well, working with DNA is an interesting thing to bring up at a cocktail party, so has this schlep work suddenly become sexy work? What if your job is to build the machine that automates sexy work? Is that schlep work or sexy work? Is it sexy work that becomes schlep work once you have to start maintaining the machine? Or is it still sexy if the data you're dealing with happens to live in a sexy domain?

Another thing he doesn't talk about is outsourcing, which is what the Big Bosses would love to do with all that schlep work, although that often goes poorly if the schlep work is complicated or culturally sensitive.

This isn't to say his argument is total rubbish. The point about the proliferation of unsexy caretaker jobs is salient. In fact, if you wanted to get ahead in any field and didn't care about social status, you could probably find the sweet spot just by looking for low-social-status, difficult-to-automate, difficult-to-outsource roles. Oftentimes these jobs pay pretty well, even if they bore you to tears. Often you find suburban dads filling these roles; they know a steady source of income when they see one.
posted by evil otto at 11:10 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Stand down yellow alert. This is a bold new economic model based around the exchange of shitty italian cars."

To quote the Magliozzi brothers, "Fix it again, Tony!"
posted by Teakettle at 11:19 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm having a lot of trouble with the ahistoricism of this. This man's ideas of "chimney sweep" and "bard" as occupations are made up. They are not grounded in the fact of past work, they reference nothing in reality. They are cartoons produced by his imagination. Which would be fine if he weren't pretending he was describing some factual condition in the past. After reading it all, it's just all too reductive (in that way) to comprise a good argument.

when I hear people complain about unpaid internships, it's primarily people who want to be reporters (or worse, opinion writers), or museum curators, or development directors at a cool nonprofit. I guess I'm just wondering how many of those people there really are.

Well, I'm in one of those fields. Museum studies programs are pushing out at least a couple thousand graduates a year, and we have dozens of internship applications for every unpaid slot, so, a fair number.
posted by Miko at 11:30 AM on July 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


The Future Of Work is going to be a difficult topic for capitalist societies structured around labour as identity. Interesting that when it was automating factory lines, there was little concern about the future of work. Twenty years later, when high-wage jobs like those of accountants and lawyers are being automated, now we have to discuss the future of work.
posted by nickrussell at 11:34 AM on July 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


I've been very impressed with the graduate programme at the company I'm working for right now. They support kids through university (college too in some cases), and when they enter the company they get rotated through the business units, doing real work for real clients, and are supported with a structured programme of training and mentorship. They even take exams.

And the company does make money off them, it's not just altruism. In many ways they're horrifically Enterprise, but in this they excel.

French company, BTW.
posted by Leon at 11:37 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting that when it was automating factory lines, there was little concern about the future of work.

Are you kidding? Do you know how many 80s movies showed regular hard-working blue-collar Americans thrown out of work when the high-tech Japanese came to town and bought the company?
posted by Leon at 11:42 AM on July 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Sarah Kendzior: Writers just starting out could benefit from blogging. But never blog for free for someone who can afford to pay you. (Here is a hint: If they are part of a corporation, they can pay you.) Blog on your own, uncensored.

Ironically enough, the interviewer/blogger Sam Bakkila is almost certainly not getting paid, as at the last I heard PolicyMic does not pay.

This article encapsulates why I'm not pursuing journalism, despite what would qualify as early success (being paid to write for a "prestigious" publication). There's nothing there anymore.
posted by tooloudinhere at 11:53 AM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess I'm just wondering how many of those people there really are.

Even the street paper I used to work for and still contribute to, with a readership only in the six figures, gets more applications from people willing to do unpaid internship than the paper can possibly use.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:19 PM on July 13, 2013


Part of the reason they're so common is that it's a field that really does need some contextualizing and on-the-job training.

This is bullshit, though. If you need people to do something and it requires knowledge your average person doesn't have, you either ask only for experienced people or you hire knowing that they're going to need to get up to speed.

Once more, this is privatizing profit and socializing loss, the loss in this case being the chance the person you invested training in decides to leave. That risk can be mitigated almost completely by not being a shitty place to work, too.

Corporations have done an excellent job teaching us that it's society's problem to churn out perfect worker-bots that know exactly what they want us to know. And the end-result of that is the case where you now have vastly more people with very expensive training, sorry, degrees, than there are jobs to be had in that field.
posted by maxwelton at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2013 [23 favorites]


The chimney sweep I hired a couple of winters ago (should probably call him again for this upcoming winter, too) was QUITE well paid for his 2-3 hours of work in my house.

Modern day chimney sweeps are artisans.


Modern day chimney sweeps have to carry a ton of insurance, because they do often-akward work on rooftops, and because they can be blamed if a customer's house down.
posted by jon1270 at 1:20 PM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Much of the article to my eyes centers on the sentiment that everything is fine, things are looking up, the un-sexy jobs can also be un-boring, keep up the work, etc etc.

I have to disagree, strongly, with the sentiment that everything is fine. We, as a civilization, are spinning our collective wheels at the moment. The economy is looking up... but to what end? Business is growing... for what greater purpose? Where is this all leading to, fifty years down the road?

"More wealth, prosperity, and growth" is not an acceptable answer on the civilization level, nor even a correct one when the lens pans out beyond the upper crust to the filling that keeps it all looking good. What is our goal here, to simply subsist and bumble about on the planet? It all feels so circular, stagnant, and without direction.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:26 PM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was all set to get all up in arms about the first article, but then my brain went *click* and I realized that it is actually an article about work specifically in tech and related sectors, and isn't actually examining the economy and workplace as a whole.

Thanks for the insight. I was trying to get my brain around the article but it was just so darn slippery. That makes much more sense. Of course, it didn't help his case that his examples are outside the tech world. One can have all sorts of reasons to prefer a hand-crafted coffee mug over a industrially-produced one. I am not sure there is any reason to prefer "hand-crafted data manipulation" over machine manipulation, assuming the results are the same. Heck, Babbage's engines were inspired by the need to have a better way to create data tables than human production.

In another area, I found this interesting:
These tractable universes, on which elegant algorithms operate, don’t emerge magically out of messy realities. They emerge because humans work to either censor out or encode a million little exceptions, corner cases and arbitrary domain-specific details. They emerge because humans work around problem regimes that resist generalization and simple automated learning models.
This is pretty much why I find efforts to create better search engines (as opposed to training people to search better) so frustrating -- it's a problem that is automated only with great difficulty, but is relatively easy to get a pretty solid basic handle on, and then searchers aren't at the mercy of the search engine to find what they want. But you know, "the digital natives just understand" and all that shit.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:26 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


*burns* down.
posted by jon1270 at 1:26 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who are these people who get to pick and choose their jobs like breads at whole food? Nobody I know.
posted by edheil at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


If you need people to do something and it requires knowledge your average person doesn't have, you either ask only for experienced people or you hire knowing that they're going to need to get up to speed.

The latter is what the internship phase is. It just happens before you graduate and you get school credit in lieu of a paycheck. And it lasts exactly one semester, no more, no less. And you only work two days a week. And you're only given interesting and educational tasks. And you walk out the door at 5 even if everyone else will be there half the night. And you get access to any department that interests you, get to work directly with all the top people, try your hand at things you're passionate about, etc. At the end of it, you get a permanent paid job and a ton of connections to shepherd you along your way. It's not a bad deal at all, if you can swing it.

On the other hand, I've seen a lot of other internships that are just "come work for us for free indefinitely, because this is a Sexy field and we shouldn't have to pay you for your labor".
posted by Sara C. at 2:23 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Elites have ALWAYS done sexy work. They are just now (probably like the author of this article) enraged that others are trying to get some sexy, too.
posted by Halogenhat at 2:38 PM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Strange that he says conspicuous consumption is the eternal way and what he calls conspicuous production is recent. Most people most places couldn't partake in conspicuous consumption either.

The question is once one can provide consumption enough for basic needs, why prioritize conspicuousness in consumption or production? Which is more important?

And beside that, only some people care so much what other people think. The author makes the mistake of universalizing his temperament. Some people consume because they enjoy what they consume. That was a tasty beer! Others to stand out: when I have the latest iDevice, I'll show it off to my friends.

Likewise it's narrow-minded to say all people with fierce creative urges are doing it for social approval. Kafka didn't write those stories for fame or fortune. I also don't see it as always a self-indulgent upper-middle-class New Age "personal development" indulgence to give priority of expression in one's life, although unfortunately the economic system has a way of squelching such priorities. Self-expression isn't selfish, as it's at the service of something, at the service of ideas or ideals.

And what about the numerous situations in the past where people engaged in conspicuous renunciation? What about all the people who said, "Nope, wanting none of it," and holed away into monasteries or hermitages?
posted by Schmucko at 2:40 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


"You are not an artisan." Yeah, stop trying to be happy. Remove all delusions until you have nothing left but the cruel reality of life.
posted by Halogenhat at 2:54 PM on July 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'm sorry but I can't stop thinking about this one. So people who want to make meaning out of their lives, who want feel like they have control over their environment and their future by renouncing the status quo, capitalism, etc, by making something with their hands and/or living off the land, and being a part of a small community are DELUSIONAL NARCISSISTS?

Is this going to be the argument when people like him and other techno-bloggers and robot engineers are finding ways to justify systemically destroying the lives of people less intelligent than they are?
posted by Halogenhat at 3:19 PM on July 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Fuck the accountant, kill the banker, marry the plumber.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:21 PM on July 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Artisans are going to have a bad time in the next few decades. They will spin their wheels trying to sell nonessential variety just out of reach of machines, that require unprofitable amounts of customer-education marketing. They will hawk under-priced artisanal coffee, food, clothing, jewelry and handbags to a shrinking class of consumers with enough discretionary income.

I think this is silly. I grew up in a small town where lots of people made their living combining their skills in many ways. Many people with a trade are capable of a wide variety of work, including highly artistic work, and this division between trades person and artisan is kind of fake.

At my work we buy furniture for our building from a woodworker who makes custom furnishings in oak (sustainably harvested white oak!). The work is top notch, the price is comparable to industrial quality factory-produced work (made of press board and laminate), and his work is beautiful and much longer-lasting.

He has *also* done all sorts of cabinetry and construction work with his skills, over the years. Lately not so much, as he has had a long career through which he worked up a large enough clientele over many years to do primarily custom work--so much he now turns down some projects. But should his custom work dry up, he is still able to use his wood working skills on other contracts.

We are just beginning to discover the schlep work in the information economy. From solar panel installers to driverless car debuggers, several schleppy professions are starting to emerge. Those who are fixated on saving sexy work are most likely to miss schleppy opportunities.

Why? Creative, flexible technologically skilled people can probably do lots of different things, just like my woodworking guy. Indeed every techy person I know assembles and fixes hardware as well as programming it.
posted by chapps at 3:25 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I also don't see it as always a self-indulgent upper-middle-class New Age "personal development" indulgence to give priority of expression in one's life,

This, for sure. There were many very interesting and thought-provoking things in his article, and I suspect it would be great fun to 'argue' these points with this guy, but it is very much painted with broad brushes. Many of us who make things would never dream of calling ourselves 'artisans'; we just ... you know, make stuff.
posted by woodblock100 at 3:32 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


> So people who want to make meaning out of their lives, who want feel like they have control over their environment and their future by renouncing the status quo, capitalism, etc, by making something with their hands and/or living off the land, and being a part of a small community are DELUSIONAL NARCISSISTS?

Well... sort of. He's saying that it's fine to live whatever kind of lifestyle you want and can afford, but if you think you're helping the world at the same time, then you may be delusional.

That is, you can't force people to want whatever you happen to like selling.

This seems true and wise to me. But it is a harsh truth, I understand why you're upset.
posted by officer_fred at 5:02 PM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Artisans are going to have a bad time in the next few decades...

I think this is silly


I think it seems silly only because the author got sloppy as he was wrapping up his essay, and mixed different meanings of "artisan." It might make more sense if you consider that what he really meant was that Bards [as he uses the term] are going to have a bad time.

At my work we buy furniture for our building from a woodworker who makes custom furnishings in oak (sustainably harvested white oak!). The work is top notch, the price is comparable to industrial quality factory-produced work (made of press board and laminate), and his work is beautiful and much longer-lasting.

I'm a woodworker too, and what you've described here is exactly the useful, boring schlep work the author is saying is actually valuable. It demands intelligence. The special requirements of custom work are the requisite variety here, and are not very algorithmically scalable. It is genuinely creative, totally unglamorous work to do. It's not sexy, though it might seem sexy in some customers' imaginations. It's dusty, physically demanding, stinky and sometimes hazardous work. Your guy is an artisan, but not the kind the author was talking about at the end there. The author was talking about airquote artisans.

Think of the speculative pieces you might see on Etsy, or in a craft gallery in a tourist town or gentrifying neighborhood. For every sexy/"creative" piece of speculative craft that sells at a price high enough to pay the maker enough to keep him or herself fed, sheltered and clothed long enough to make the next piece that will actually sell at such a price, dozens languish unloved or sell at prices that are far too low to keep the makers' bodies and spirits together for such a period. That's the lottery economy he refers to, and it's a real thing. It's there for aspiring modern "artisans," like studio furniture makers. It's there for aspiring musicians -- all those conservatory students who study the oboe, dreaming of landing one of the half-handful of orchestra positions that will open up this year or next, and instead either starve, or marry into an income, or offer lessons, or direct church choirs. It's there for humanities PhD's aspiring to academia, who might be extremely qualified and have published multiple books and still can't pull down $30K in NYC because there's so damn many of them vying for the work; a professor friend recently commented that many adjunct positions are only feasible for candidates whose spouses are bringing in $80K or better. Heck, it's the same deal with college athletes that dream of million-dollar professional contracts, which fits the sexy, high-status idea even if most people wouldn't call it a creative vocation, and even if the metrics used to gauge athletic talent are more objective. In all of these there are the glamorous exceptions, but the author was writing about the median cases.

That said, I do think he may have been painting with somewhat overbroad brushes. Status/sexiness is a significant driver of the bard-like pursuits he thinks are bound to disappoint, but there's more to it for a lot of craft people. Instead of (or in addition to) status, hopeful craftspeople might be driven by genuine affection for their products, or get special fulfillment from their process, or they might want feel like they have control over their environment and their future by renouncing the status quo, capitalism, etc. But none of these are deliverables. These are things primarily of value to the maker, more consumptive than productive, and they do not, in the median case, pay the bills or fill the mouth.

That's how it reads to me, anyhow. Hits pretty close to home, too.
posted by jon1270 at 5:18 PM on July 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Halogenhat: "Elites have ALWAYS done sexy work. They are just now (probably like the author of this article) enraged that others are trying to get some sexy, too."

True elites do not work, at least not out of necessity. I'm not sure when the definition of "elite" included upper middle class, but it's not the way I usually think of it.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:52 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is our goal here, to simply subsist and bumble about on the planet? It all feels so circular, stagnant, and without direction.

If you mean our goal should be to make sure our civilization is sustainable and everyone can subsist with a minimum of suffering, sure. Why the hell would we want more direction than that?
posted by atoxyl at 7:08 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


jon1270, I like your description of your work and the economic conditions of woodworking. I think there is a lot of interesting discussion to be had about markets for creative work of all kinds. And I feel like I should like the article, but it really rubs me the wrong way. I tried to pick it apart and think why this is so...

1) the tone. I think it is mocking people who make mugs and open coffee shops, but the author offers you the chance to argue with him for $4.17 a minute (in the little ad on the side). !!!

2) The author ascribes beliefs to people who he wants to disagree with in order to disagree with them. As you (jon1270) point out, people have many reasons for wanting to make things for a living, and they are not all about having a "sexy" job you can talk about at cocktail parties and feel important. You mention satisfaction in your work and control over your work environment. I would add that many women I know also fare better financially as a small scale craft seller than in their office work if they have small children who can come with them, and they don't need to pay for daycare. So I would add flexibility, portability, the positive environment.

Lots of people who make things for a living hang out with others doing similar work--people who know the work isn't really glamourous and involves lots of hard work and pretty low, irregular income. So I don't think they can always use their job to convince their peers of the glamourous importance of what they do.

3) I think the author dismisses the hard work is involved in creative work -- whether making music, movies, fine cheese or handbags. I think he does this by conflating some unrealistic sods to everyone doing creative work. People are self-imporant ignoramuses in all sorts of jobs. You don't need to be "artisinal" to do this. I do agree the artisinal thing is over the top, and loved the artisinal pencil sharpener guy previously. who I think did a great job making the same point.

4) much of schlepping work of any kind, creative or not, is unstable and poorly paid. So I say when picking between unstable work, pick something you are good at and enjoy.

5) Lots of people take pride in their "schlepping:" work, i.e. being a great office administrator, or being a great accountant. I don't know a small "creative" firm or coffee shop that doesn't need a good bookkeeper as part of their team. Most people who don't want to be a bookkeeper don't want to because it doesn't suit their skill set. Who wants a bookkeeper who is better suited to being a clarinet teacher?

6) He says we errantly fight to "save sexy jobs" and I think this is very interesting ... where I am (British Columbia) I have grown up with years of fighting to save the local mill, logging jobs, and fishing industry (sadly we have not always succeeded). These are the primary "local" jobs I think of when I think of work disappearing.

Recently the Vancouver film industry tried to make a case for the economic value of their work... but precisely because of this idea that creative work is frippery and non-essential, it is hard for them to get political traction. Yet the film industry is actually quite important economically, and the source of work for many, many people.


Anyway, perhaps I am being unfair. After all, as you can see from above the article did get me thinking quite a bit about the nature of this kind of work, what it means, and its value.
posted by chapps at 8:00 PM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I hate this article.* To start:

One fulfilled a critical economic function by engaging in unpleasant and inconspicuous production. The other fulfilled a non-critical economic function in the economy by engaging in pleasurable and conspicuous production.

This text is completely illogical to me. It fails definitionally—nowhere has the author taken care to unpack his personal valuation of what is supposed to be "critical". It fails semantically—whether a task is pleasant or conspicuous production (in the literal sense, not the loaded sense that he chooses to uses the phrase) has no obvious connection to "criticality". We're just supposed to accept these assertions? It fails contextually—with a little creative thinking I don't find it hard to fit the bard and the chimney-sweep into either sentence. It is lazy theorizing and I don't like it.

At the end of the article:

I think of them as forming an emerging Hamiltonian middle class — a class that accepts and adapts to large-scale technological systems as a part of life (the kind that Alexander Hamilton promoted in early America). Unlike the Jeffersonian middle class, the Hamiltonian middle class is willing and able to redefine its identity and evolve with machines rather than remaining attached to a static, romanticized notion of what it means to be human.

Modulo the analysis of class X versus class Y, I think the Borg Queen has advocated exactly this kind of conclusion. At this point in the article I find it extremely problematic that the author would introduce the loaded notion of "romanticized notion".

It's a great topic, but the lack of rigor is problematic and I don't want to parse every paragraph (and I think his paragraphs are too short, which unless you're a skilled writer is an organizational warning sign) trying to find and verify the gold in it.

*Last time I felt this way with a piece of writing with the Tiger Mom theory of Amy Chua.
posted by polymodus at 8:15 PM on July 13, 2013


I don't think I'm drunk enough to read the article OR any of these responses.
posted by smallerdemon at 8:38 PM on July 13, 2013


Smallerdemon, perhaps you would like to buy some of my artisinal meade. Only $42 per 500 ml
posted by chapps at 9:03 PM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Another thing missing: in the old days before mass production, conspicuous consumption paid for conspicuous production. Have a famous painting on your wall? You supported an artist. Have designer clothes? Someone works as a designer. Get tickets to the hard to get into concert or play? The orchestra or band or theater troupe gets a check.
posted by Schmucko at 12:10 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Get tickets to the hard to get into concert or play? The orchestra or band or theater troupe gets a check.

I'm pretty sure that this is an equation which remains unaffected by mass production.
posted by hippybear at 7:38 AM on July 14, 2013


There's a good bit wrong here but to zero in on the key point, the distinction between "sexy" and "schleppy" is just more essentialism. What Rao almost grasps (about 175 years too late) before falling into a series of stupid dualities is that the labor market is determined by socio-historical disagreements about which activities and endeavors actually constitute "work." That certain jobs are "sexy" and highly paid is nothing more than the jostling between classes and it is a tale that is, literally, as old as time.

(By the way what's really remarkable is how cheaply thinkers like Rao can be produced these days. There was a time when everybody -- even little children -- understood the basic Marxist reality that the "labor market" isn't a market at all, that questions around work and risk are ultimately political questions. But here's a bunch of propaganda about the future of work that doesn't even acknowledge the basic truth. It really does capture how successful the neoliberal attempt to eliminate the state from the economy has been.)

Another thing missing: in the old days before mass production, conspicuous consumption paid for conspicuous production. Have a famous painting on your wall? You supported an artist. Have designer clothes? Someone works as a designer. Get tickets to the hard to get into concert or play? The orchestra or band or theater troupe gets a check.

What's so silly about the whole "lost jobs" narrative is that on its face it doesn't make any sense at all. If a bunch of jobs were truly lost then one would expect a precipitous decline in living standards combined with very high interest rates. But we see the exact opposite. In a time when journalism is disappearing we see much more "news" than ever. So the jobs are quite clearly still being done, the only question is -- where? Who?

And before everybody accuses technology it is simply not the case that machines steal jobs from people because machines are not, as yet, perfect substitutions for people. All technological dislocations in labor are preceeded by changes in the quality of demand. Something happens on the buy-side that forces the sell-side to innovate and invest in automation only as a last resort. The question is -- what? When?

Believe it or not, there is no "Economy." There is no "future of work." It can be hard to see this because absolutely *everybody* is always talking about the "Economy" but the "Economy" is a myth invented in 1776 to act as a counterbalance to the all-consuming "State." It was literally a coup d'etat. The reality is that there are many "games of exchange" that happen in all communities and there are many "tokens of value" (ie money) that ultimately denominate these games. This doesn't change the basic (Marxist) reality that for most people their labor or their job is their primary interface into society itself and so ultimately determines their "value" as human beings. What's changing now are the nature of the games.

It has been obvious for decades that the so-called private sphere simply cannot produce enough labor for everybody. This is why in any advanced economy the public sphere still constitutes anywhere from 10% to 50% of the work. What is slowly becoming clear is that not even the public sphere can produce enough meaningful labor for today's mega-populations. So who? For most people in the West, these are the only two games in town.

The idea that boring "trades" work is somehow decoupled by from the slow-motion collapse of the private and public games is ridiculous and, frankly, it's laugh-out-loudable that any kind of real "middle class" could be built on human customer service (particularly in the face of globalization, the ability to speak English is not such a meaningful skill). The harsh reality is that most people aspiring to play the public or private games are in for some pretty tough times. That trade is just a wee-bit overdone. As with all trades the early adopters won big, took all the profits and left nothing behind for the followers.
posted by nixerman at 7:57 AM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


...it's narrow-minded to say all people with fierce creative urges are doing it for social approval. Kafka didn't write those stories for fame or fortune.

I didn't read the article as saying this in the least. It suggested, rather, that it's foolish to think you can build a career doing things that are "sexy", because "sexy" work has always been winner-takes-all, and conspicuous production has flooded the supply side of those markets.

Kafka's actually a pretty good example of this. He was an excellent writer, who clearly had an unshakeable commitment to his work. He also never married the love of his life, despite it being clear that she'd have had him either way, because he knew he couldn't support a family without giving up writing. He died alone, never having seen any of his work in print, and considered his career such a failure that he intended for all of his writing to be destroyed after his death.

Unless you consider that a life you're willing to lead, it might not be a good idea to walk in his footsteps, or encourage cultural myths ("find a job you love") that take people to the same place. The future of work looks an awful lot like the past of work: schleppy.
posted by tsmo at 8:53 AM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unless you consider that a life you're willing to lead, it might not be a good idea to walk in his footsteps, or encourage cultural myths ("find a job you love") that take people to the same place. The future of work looks an awful lot like the past of work: schleppy.

I think it is not anybody's place to tell people not to follow their calling. I don't believe in the argument: "think twice before you do this because the road ahead is filled with danger and suffering", because the reference this is already deeply intersubjective. I cannot understand another person's specific calling, but I know what a calling feels like. Sure, the privileged advice of "follow your passion" is highly controversial—but I believe it would be wrong to oversell or discourage it, either way. The correct solution—What people need is better critical thinking capability, i.e. independent thinking. Because if our population's well-being should hinge so much on either the presence or absence of such memes, then indeed we will have succumbed to ideology.

The article's conceit is that it pretends some people are fools, when actually all of us are.
posted by polymodus at 11:35 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the same site. If you work in a company this is essential reading - even if you've never seen 'the Office'!
posted by Riton at 11:34 AM on July 15, 2013


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