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The Sweet Pursuit

Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive


The Unnatural Way We Work

 by Julie Hanus


Tags: the (bullshit) economy, meaningful work, labor, Richard Sennett, Rochelle Gurnstein, Guernica, Julie Hanus,

a small cheese factory 

In the Jan.-Feb. issue of Utne Reader, we reprinted a great interview with Richard Sennett about the value of craftsmanship, what the sociologist calls “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” In a recent piece for Guernica, Rochelle Gurstein looks at craftsmanship from a policy perspective—by way of exploring the history of labor in the United States and the intentional dismantling of a skilled labor economy.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor,” Gurstein writes. “It came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone.” The assembly-line mindset hastened the demise of meaningful work and, of course, bolstered the consumerism that’s come to define American life and threaten the environment. But while conversations about consuming less are in vogue, discussions of a new (or renewed) way to work are not. As Gurstein puts it:

Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing.

Source: Guernica 

Image by K. Kendall, licensed under Creative Commons. 

judi burness_1
3/24/2010 6:47:23 AM

Middle class life? Isn't that something that existed until about 10 years ago? When a large majority people are working two jobs at minimum wage (or close to it) in order to cover the basic necessities and consider themselves lucky not to be employed as so many people are, I don't think middle class life exists anymore.


tracy o'connell_3
3/19/2010 4:48:32 PM

I find this issue vital - for 15 years I watched the way work was 're-engineered' and wondered WHO could be benefiting. Once knowledge workers loved our jobs. Work was a place we could feel useful, effective, appreciated. Then we were crammed into cubicles and had to tiptoe and whisper to not disturb others, and schedule meetings somewhere else to talk. Saying 'hello' would get you shushed with angry looks and gestures. Managers spend half their lives doing what they used to delegate. Virtually everyone needs a college degree to do work that's basically clerical, which formerly could be done right out of high school. I earned six figures and spent half my time fixing the copier, answering unwanted phone calls, formatting agendas, writing minutes, reserving meeting rooms, . . . while doing very little big-picture things a manager is expected to do. Clerical people, meanwhile, who chose that work and had a solid, middle-class life, are now a rarity . . . Is it any surprise companies are broke, unemployment is skyrocketing, and people are burned out and resentful? My solution? Go back to support staff. Let managers manage, let those who don't want four years of college have a direct route to a support job and middle-class life.