Monday, 24 April 2017

The rise of the cultural omnivore and the artisan career

William Skidelsky
Whatever you think of the gig economy, it does throw up some amusingly bizarre jobs. Set Sar, of Providence, Rhode Island, told this paper in 2015 that he earns a crust by looking at videos and web pages on his computer while having his eyeball movements tracked via webcam. The information this provides is valuable to advertisers — and earns him a dollar every few minutes. In its higher echelons, the gig economy has led to an array of jobs with “consultant” in their title, as people find ingenious ways to peddle niche services to the rich. In New York, for example, “play date consultants” charge up to $400 an hour to teach the progeny of millionaires to share their toys.

Rob Court, neon artist at Creative Neon

The bad news (or good, depending on your viewpoint) is that none of this is going to change. Work is going to become even more bitty and insecure. The concept of a “job for life” has seemed outmoded for a while now. In the future, it seems doubtful whether “jobs” as we know them will exist at all. Many, of course, will be done away with by the much-prophesied automated takeover of everything from truck driving to brain surgery. But that is only half the story. Something more basic is under threat: the entire edifice of office-based, nine-to-five employment that has defined our working lives for at least a century.

Robert Elek, shoemaker at James Taylor & Son

The bargain employees once struck with their employers was simple: they handed their minds and bodies over for 40 hours or more each week, in exchange for security, pensions, mortgages. But today this model makes little sense. Many jobs — certainly most white-collar ones — consist of a range of different tasks, the majority of which can be performed by anyone with an internet connection. So why employ one person to do them all, when that also involves renting office space, investing in training, paying benefits and employing managers to supervise? Why not, instead, slice jobs up into their component parts, and contract these out to specialists? In many industries — pharmaceuticals, accountancy — this is already happening, as full-time employees are replaced by contractors. For millions of people around the globe, this is what the future holds: each worker a one-person corporation, a droplet in what some are calling the “human cloud”.

Camilla Goddard, beekeeper at Capital Bee

Such a future strikes fear into many. And it will, no doubt, have deplorable consequences. Unemployment will rise. Wages may drop. A new model of welfare will have to emerge, to ensure that those pushed out of the workplace can survive. (Universal basic incomes and “digital dividends” are among the ideas being advocated.) For the unskilled and un-enterprising, the fragmentation of work is especially dangerous. Blue-collar workers are already getting a foretaste of what may lie ahead as employers extricate themselves from their traditional obligations by forcing employees to work on zero-hours contracts.

Jenn Merrick, brewer at Beaver Town Brewery

On the other hand, lamenting the fact of change seems futile. There was nothing necessary, or inherently “right”, about the old model. It was simply what — before the advent of globalisation, the internet and widespread automation — made most sense. And the new dispensation is sure to have its upsides. One, perhaps, will be the demise of office work. Offices are often spirit-sapping places, incompatible, for many, with a sense of agency and self-respect. People also dislike having bosses: the prospect of not having one, surveys have shown, is a major motivation for going freelance. Having the freedom to work where you want, in your own time, rather than among people and in a place not of your choosing, are things that people increasingly value, and not only those at the top end of the pay-scale.

As the nature of work changes, so the question of its value comes increasingly to the fore. If, in the future, there’s less work to go round, is that a bad thing, given that it doesn’t necessarily equate to less overall wealth? How can we make our working lives feel more meaningful? Three new books offer contrasting perspectives on these questions.

Two of the titles include references to the “new economy” — the word “new”, in this context, being essentially a synonym for “knowledge-based”. A new economy is one where the generator of exchange value — wealth — has shifted from material goods to knowledge and ideas. Aside from a sense of precariousness, its key features include: the rise of industries such as information technology, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology; a growing separation between “elite” service jobs, such as those in finance and law, and those in sectors such as cleaning and food provision; and, in physical terms, the transform­ation of rundown emblems of the industrial past (such as factories and docklands) into vibrant “urban hubs”.

Richard Ocejo’s Masters of Craft addresses one facet of this changing landscape: the revival of certain craft or artisanal jobs that were once cornerstones of the industrialised city. A growing number of educated young people, Ocejo notes, are forgoing well-paid careers in the knowledge sector in favour of these “new-old” jobs. Ocejo focuses on just four — barbering, butchery, bartending and distilling — but he could have chosen others such as coffee roasting, brewing, carpentry, upholstery and ceramics. He also confines himself, geographically, to New York, where he works as a sociologist at City University.

For Ocejo, these new masters of craft present a puzzle. Traditionally, professions such as bartending and butchery were low-status and poorly paid. Those who did them had few options. Today, while these jobs are still relatively poorly paid, they have become “cool”. And in their remade form, they provide services that are considerably higher-end — and more expensive — than ever before. At a trendy New York barbershop, Ocejo points out, a haircut costs $50 dollars or more. A traditional barber charges a fraction of this. Joints of meat sold at “whole animal” butchers practically require you to take out a mortgage. And at trendy bars, meanwhile, customers shell out $15 or more for a “craft” cocktail, made — of course — with spirits produced by a new generation of artisan distillers.

All this raises two related questions. What explains the market for these new goods? And why are so many young people drawn to producing them? Ocejo’s answer to the first involves a fascinating discussion of the evolution of taste. He suggests that in recent times a new figure — the “cultural omnivore” — has emerged, replacing the connoisseurs, or “snobs”, of the past. Cultural omnivores tend to be youngish and usually have well-paid jobs in the knowledge sector. Though just as well-heeled as earlier cultural elites, they make no (or fewer) class-based distinctions. They are just as likely to be drawn to hip-hop and craft beer as conventionally “highbrow” products such as opera and expensive wine. In other words, their tastes are “democratic” — although this doesn’t mean that they aren’t picky. In fact, released from old class anxieties — which often acted as a hindrance to real discrimination — they are free to pursue quality for its own sake. Ocejo contends that the emergence of the cultural omnivore is a major driver of the market for his new artisan professions.

As to what prompts well-educated young people to work as baristas, distillers or butchers, Ocejo suggests several factors, most of which relate to the concept of authenticity. Partly, it’s a response to the growing abstruseness of much white-collar work: unlike many jobs in finance and tech, artisan jobs seem solid and “real”. People like the fact that they involve the body as well as the mind: though they require considerable knowledge, it is always in the service of a practical goal — a delicious drink, a stylish haircut. Another attraction is their outward-facing, performative aspect: most of these jobs involve interacting with people going about their daily lives, sharing knowledge, passing on tips. Ocejo is good at showing how, in post-industrial economies, craftspeople have become transmitters of desirable knowledge, even replacing conventional cultural gatekeepers (critics, say) as arbiters of taste.

Masters of Craft is academic in tone and isn’t always an easy read. Unlike many commentators on the “hipster” lifestyle, Ocejo resists the temptation to mock his subjects. Yet his straight-faced approach proves justified; this is a fascinating book, full of valuable observations and insights. Particularly impressive is the way it captures the distinctive atmospheres of these jobs. In a new-generation New York barbershop, for example, Ocejo observes (and reproduces) the macho repartee of the barbers — making it clear, in the process, what it is about such a workplace that appeals to many people.

Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy sounded to me like a George Orwell-style account of the lives of zero-hours shift-workers and Uber drivers. In fact, it’s an analysis of how the “new economy” is transforming the whole process of job recruitment. Gershon, an anthropologist at Indiana University, focuses on California’s Bay Area — in other words, the epicentre of the “knowledge economy”. Like Ocejo, she provides masses of detail, with individual chapters on, say, personal branding and the increasing role played by LinkedIn. The narrowness of her preoccupations, and the academic tone, mean that her book is unlikely to find many non-specialist readers — with the exception, perhaps, of those desperate for a job.

Unlike jobs in finance and tech, artisan jobs seem solid, ‘real’. People like the fact that they involve body and mindThis is a shame, because at its centre is an important insight. Gershen argues that the changing nature of work has led to a fundamental shift in how the relationship between employees and employers is construed. Whereas, in the past, it was seen as being like a property contract — a worker renting out a part of themselves to a company — today it has become looser and less formal, more akin, Gershen suggests, to a business-to-business “partnership”. This helps explain various features of modern work: the need for job applicants to present themselves not as people with marketable skills but as “brands” who feel “passionate” about their “values”; the erosion of the distinction between work and private life (being a brand, after all, is a full-time occupation); and why companies feel less obligated to their employees than in the past. These are genuinely interesting arguments — and they deserve to find mainstream readers.

Andy Merrifield’s The Amateur is a quite different beast. Merrifield is a leftwing “urbanist” whose thinking has been influenced both by obvious figures (Marx and Weber) and more unexpected ones (Baudelaire and Kafka). The Amateur is an old-style polemic arguing that many ills of the modern world (inequality, rising levels of stress and depression) stem from the increased specialisation of knowledge — or what Merrifield calls the “professional” mindset. He advocates instead a return to amateurism — which he defines as the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, and the freedom to roam promiscuously between disciplines.

It is hard to argue with the broad gist of his argument. And it is timely: a dislike of “experts” has become a common cri de coeur among neoliberalism’s critics. The Amateur is also erudite and engagingly written. Yet it does have a major flaw, which is that many of Merrifield’s arguments don’t seem very realistic: his far-left political leanings lead him to brand anyone he likes (Jeremy Corbyn, for instance) as an amateur and anyone he dislikes as an evil professional.

Yet the basic idea behind Merrifield’s thesis — that we all need more intellectual passion in our lives — is refreshing. And in the context of the two other books, it is worth thinking about what kind of “passion” he means. It is not, for example, the ersatz “passion” for their own personal “brands” that Gershen’s job applicants are expected to display. Rather, it’s a passion for knowledge for its own sake, and for engaging with ordinary people — very much the passion, you could well argue, that Ocejo’s masters of craft already possess.

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