Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Artisanal blue collar jobs. (Or, news that sounds like it’s from the Onion.)

These days, any news about blue collar jobs on a growth spurt is good news. Or is it?

Apparently not when we’re looking at a headline that reads “Manual Labor Goes Upscale One Craft Cocktail at a Time.” This appeared in Sunday’s Boston Globe, in the Ideas section. And the headline, of course, gave us a very strong clue that we were talking fedora here, not hardhat. Anyway, the article was an interview that David Scharfenberg conducted with sociologist Richard Ocejo, who’s written about “a group of well-educated and culturally savvy young men out to change the meaning of manual labor.”

Ah, we’re at a moment here. Manual labor has become – sigh – a thing. (Oh, for the good old days when manual labor meant a job.)

The article focused on jobs that lend themselves to artisanality – bartending, cutting meat, cutting hair – jobs that of late have a cool factor stemming for the recent interest in things that are “authentic.” No mention of coalmining, of course, which can’t be done in an urban setting – and may be a tad too dangerous and gritty.

As for that job line up: I can see that there can be a certain craftiness to concocting drinks made up of lilac infused vodka, eau de vie, and nasturtiums. And locavores with a cow raised on prem aren’t going to leave the prime-ribbing to just any old butcher. But an artisanal barber? Is that someone who specializes in man buns? Or “do’s” that look good with a fedora. (By the way, my father – who was bald – was the antithesis of hipster. But that man could rock a fedora.)

Here’s what Ocejo had to say:

These [new high-end craft] jobs are examples of how men can use their bodies to reclaim this lost sense of masculinity. But obviously, it’s very different from previous generations of manual labor — different from the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that President Trump and others were speaking about during the election. The people who are filling these jobs are people who have college degrees, have professional backgrounds, people who have other options — mostly because they have the cultural reference points that these jobs require. (Source: Boston Globe)

As it happens, my Rogers grandfather was a bartender, the proprietor of a saloon, in fact. I don’t think he would have considered himself a manual laborer. That would be more along the professional lines of his saloon’s clientele. And I’m guessing he didn’t spend a ton of time reclaiming a lost sense of masculinity. Before he had the saloon, he was a blacksmith. (Is that man enough for you?) And what was driving him was trying to lose the sense of being on the god-forsaken family farm in Barre, Massachusetts. As for cultural reference points, in taking up blacksmithing at the dawn of the automobile age, he missed the point that the horseless carriage was going to replace the horse. But he was savvy enough to pick up the cultural reference point that he and his brother could make a good living running a bar that catered to boyos in Main South, Worcester. I don’t imagine that he served a lot of craft cocktails. I’m thinking shots and beer to wash down hardboiled eggs and pickled pigs feet. Alas, the saloon went out with Prohibition. (Cultural reference point: a bunch of pious, self-righteous, pinch-mouthed prudes who didn’t want ethnic immigrant Catholics drinking.) And then my grandfather – something of a serial entrepreneur, I guess – owned a drugstore. And then he up an died when my father was 11.

As it happens, my Wolf grandfather was a butcher. (Yes, indeed, I’m a walking ethnic stereotype. My German grandfather was a butcher, my Irish grandfather owned a bar.) His cultural reference point was probably WWI, and, as he made his way back to his home town after his side lost, strapped to the undercarriage (or side, or top: no one left to ask) of a crowded freight car so he wouldn’t fall off, he was thinking: I’ve got to get the hell out of the hell of war torn Europe before there’s another war. So he got married, had a couple of kids – one was my mother – and made his way to Chicago, where he had a successful store centered around the meat counter, bought property, had four more kids, learned to like baseball, and didn’t spend one second worrying about his lost sense of masculinity.

There’s an inequality angle to this. Not having a college degree obviously means that you’re not going to be qualified for a white-collar job, but here we’re seeing an example of how not having a degree — not having cultural capital — can eliminate these traditionally blue-collar jobs.

Being shut out of jobs because they lack “cultural capital” – i.e., they don’t know about lilac infused vodka – should go over well with the traditional blue collar guys. (I don’t want to give them any ideas, but Trump 2020 might want to use Ocejo’s words in their campaign ads. Or at least in a tweet or two.)

The artisanal bartenders and butchers are, of course, setting up shop in the types of cities that attract hipsters – and those with enough scratch to pay $20 for a craft cocktail and $30 for a hamburger made of beef ground from a cow butchered by an artisan. Scharfenberg asked Ocejo if maybe we were running out of neighborhoods that can be gentrified and hipster-ized.

Not to worry.

There are poor neighborhoods everywhere. As long as there are people who are willing to be the pioneers and are willing to move there and live in substandard housing, then the amenities are going to follow.

Oh, those poor true blue collar schmucks living in substandard homes without dual vanities and walk-in closets. Lucky for them, there’ll be a hipster to buy them out so they can move to some lesser location where they can have an en suite master and an above ground pool.

Having grown up in one, I have few illusions about the charms of a blue collar neighborhood. But I sure don’t want to live in a world where all the bartenders and butchers are artisanal. Makes me want to pull out the man bun of the next hipster I see. And then jump in the cab of an F150 and scream my head off.

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