Poking in the Shadows: What about ‘Hard Work’?
We have to stop treating blue-collar work as an edge case
The great majority of the time, in the discourse about the future of work, we focus almost exclusively on the full-time managerial/professional/creative class, and exclude other groups from consideration, except as numbers in spreadsheets. So, freelance professionals and creatives — a growing population, perhaps 25% or more of the working population — are treated as an edge case, or as if they were indistinguishable from their full-time colleagues.
But the biggest edge case of all may be the working class, who are often involved in what I have called ‘hard work’ in the past: physical labor, like carpenters hammering nails, health care aides lifting patients from one bed to another, assembly line workers installing dashboards in a car factory, or waiters running meals from the kitchen to the front of house. Some of their jobs involve cognitive skills, similar to the ‘soft work’ of knowledge workers tapping their keyboards, but they may do their thinking standing up, with tools other than keyboards in their hands. They are the janitors cleaning the marble floors in the lobby when you come early to work, the security guards checking your badge at the elevators, and the folks wheeling in the sandwiches for a working lunch.
And much of their work is routine, which is a stark contrast to the trends for ‘soft workers’, where a premium is placed on creativity (at least conceptually), self-expression and innovation: the earmarks of ‘disruption’. This may put ‘hard workers’ at odds with the prevailing norms of today’s business culture.
Thomas Edsall posted a piece today in the NY Times dealing with the economic and societal distress of the white working class in America, a piece which touches upon broad spectrum of topics, all deeply political. But one section touched on one aspect of the work context of ‘hard workers’, or those that Edsall calls the ‘missing middle’:
How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump | Thomas Edsall
In her book [The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America], [Joan C] Williams argues that the values of the liberal elite — self-expression, creativity, personal fulfillment — are not only different from the values of those in the “missing middle,” but a threat to their economic survival:
“Valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you don’t “have an attitude” (i.e., so that you can submit to authority). Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization; “disruption” means founding a successful start-up. Disruption, in working class jobs, just gets you fired.”
It’s a single observation, like a bright star on a cloudy night, one that suggests a constellation of issues that have been occluded in our discussions about work. The ‘hard workers’ occupy the shadows of our bright talk about innovation, self-fulfillment, and the pros and cons of the open office trend. But we need to pull the hard workers into the light if we are to actually understand the totality of the future of work, and where the tectonic forces of technology, disruption, and postnormal economics are pushing us.
Originally published at stoweboyd.com.