Renaissance of Craft Pushing Back Against Automation

Our modern, globalized economy is increasingly dominated by automation and mass production. While this is pressuring many workers, Richard Ocejo's new book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, documents the large-scale cultural pushback to revitalize "craft-based" products and services, which emphasize the human touch, locally-grown ingredients, and, in many cases, the styles and feelings of an older America.

“This is a huge Millennial trend,” Ocejo said on our podcast. “It emerged as Millennials were coming of age. For many of them, specifically ones who moved to cities usually after they graduated from college … they were shaping their consumer tastes around these products, and around this idea of craft, handmade and local. … It’s something that they’ve really come to expect.”

Focusing on Craft

The four occupations Ocejo studied — bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering — have several aspects in common. They’re all traditional jobs that witnessed a long-term decline in status or pay, but have regained their cultural status and significance in recent years.

These jobs were once more respectable and required a little bit more skill and attention to detail than they came to have at some point during the course of the twentieth century, Ocejo stated. Because of this, we’ve seen workers move in to revitalize a lot of these craft-based jobs.

Another aspect of these four professions that’s lead to their resurgence is their ability to be performed in front of an audience.

These jobs also relate to leisure or some type of leisure product, Ocejo noted, and that allows workers to put their own twist on it to make their product or service unique.

Millennials Getting Their Hands Dirty

In many ways, the revival in these professions is a reaction to the emergence of the new information economy, which has massively impacted Millennials.

Many of the individuals he studied had received a traditional college education but felt unsatisfied with their line of work.

This move to a knowledge-driven economic framework for employment has fueled a reaction by many to seek professions that allow them to use their bodies and senses to produce tangible products, Ocejo noted.

“That’s where the art side comes in,” Ocejo said. “Something like that is going to be remarkably difficult to automate.”

Masculine-Coded Occupations

The four occupations he studied have traditionally, skewed male, Ocejo noted, and men are the ones driving interest in their revitalization.

We’ve witnessed the decline of these traditional manufacturing and extraction-based jobs, and these traditionally masculine-coded craft professions involve physical activity and manual labor, which is helping fuel interest in them.

“For the folks I studied, I think that was a very important draw for them as men,” he said. “Being able to use your body, as a man, to earn your living, was a very important part of why they were doing it. None of them would put it in those terms … but that’s definitely something that came through their actions.”

On a macro level, we can see this trend, as these workers are reintroducing manual labor as a viable high-status path for a man to earn his living, and to perform his masculinity through work, Ocejo noted.

Emphasis on Local, Unique Products and Services

At the same time, the trend is focusing on local ingredients, unique items, personal touches, and direct human interaction.

“It’s foundational to what they do,” Ocejo said. This is part of a larger societal shift to create “some kind of sustainable system … that includes not just the agricultural aspect of it … but also in terms of sustainable economies and sustainable relationships between themselves and others.”

The emphasis is on local products that cut down on the supply chain, and help to preserve and enhance those sustainable relationships that they’re trying to build, he noted.

Also, these are effective marketing terms and mainstream companies are responding.

“It helps to have a story to tell,” he said. “A powerful story these days is something that is local, because it has all those implications to it, that it is somehow better, in many cases, that it’s of a certain quality, and that it is something more trustworthy. I think those are all really key elements.”

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