“The question of what a good job looks like — of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored — is more open now than it has been for a long time. Wall Street in particular has lost its luster as a destination for smart and ambitious young people. Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding of career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity. The meta-work of trafficking in the surplus skimmed from other peoples’ work suddenly appears as what it is, and it becomes possible once again to think the thought ‘let me make myself useful’.”
This quote, taken from page 9 of Shop Class as Soulcraft, sums up the book’s compelling premise. In thought-provoking fashion, the author discusses the various forms of fulfillment he’s gained from being a practicing electrician and motorcycle mechanic, versus the less satisfying experiences he’s had as a “knowledge worker” in various office settings. He’s eminently qualified to perform this analysis, as well, given his PhD in Philosophy and the fact he’s far from a misfit who couldn’t “make it” in corporate America — but actually spent several years leading a political think tank in Washington DC before deciding to shift back to a more vocational career setting.
Certainly, other authors have tackled this same ground and questioned whether something precious and irreplaceable has been lost in the world of white-collar employment today. Many of these books never pursue the debate beyond a superficial level, however, and seem ragingly biased, idealistic, and anti-corporate. Mr. Crawford’s work is the exception. He doesn’t necessarily seem to have an axe to grind — and he raises numerous thoughtful points that I haven’t seen brought up before. I’ll leave it to the potential reader to discover most of these, for themselves, but he raises issues such as whether most blue-collar work (so to speak) is inherently more cerebral than office work, due to the “real” problem-solving and troubleshooting required. Or whether many college graduates are struggling to find meaning in their work since they’re exposed to few, if any, objective measurements of achievement — unlike a mechanic, who knows he’s “been useful” and “done good” the moment the dead machine he’s working on roars back to life!
Here’s another quote, from page 126: “The popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work.” I like that one, too.
Granted, while the book does drag a little bit during its more philosophical passages, it’s also studded with a number of juicy historical tidbits that remind us that the “workplace” as we know it is a relatively recent creation. For example, one could easily forget that it was only 100 years ago or so that the idea of “management science” and the “division of labor” really took off. In fact, in Henry Ford’s first automobile factories, we’re told that he had to hire 963 men to fill every 100 jobs, since the vast majority of workers hired quit almost immediately once they realized they would be assigned to perform only a single task every day, over and over again. Apparently this notion was shocking to the sensibilities of the time, where workers were steeped in a tradition of craftsmanship and expected to have a direct hand in seeing products (or projects) through from start to finish.
In sum, whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Crawford’s conclusions, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an intellectually engaging piece of writing that will be enjoyed by anybody at a career crossroads — especially those folks who haven’t felt particularly satisfied at any point during their corporate career. One shouldn’t mistake it for a “tactical” career blueprint of any kind, or something that will aid job hunters with their day-to-day activities, but if you’re interested in philosophy, history, and big ideas, this book will be right up your alley!