Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

Human upper class work has evolved, in the 21st century affluence of America, into something most closely resembling worldwide leisure. We talk, send messages, argue a bit, peer into screens, and read. Why do we get so frustrated? Why do we rarely relax after a long day, basking in the afterglow of hard work done well?

Sometimes I think it's because of my open office. In a less complainypants view, Shop Class as Soulcraft posits that it's actually the nature of our work. By making our interactions entirely abstract, our work is subjective, and days are spent without touching the cold hard reality of real work. Presented that way, it's no wonder white collar work is stressful and frustrating.

Here's the signature thought (spoiler alert): modern work is subjective.

Authority is managed only by people and their evaluations of knowledge work are subjective, the modern white collar employee spends the vast majority of effort on managing what others think about them. Robert Jackall, a sociologist, provides much of the evidence for this theory, as he described modern management as a constant interpretation and re-interpretation of reality so that no one is really to blame for anything. Accordingly, one manager will stake our multiple positions on every issue, so that any decisions can be revisited and reversed if anything (like results) changes. All of this leads to a workplace where everything is in flux:

Discreet suggestions, hints, and coded messages take the place of commands; this, of course, places a premium on subordinates' abilities to read their bosses' vaguely articulated or completely unstated wishes.

According to Crawford, the only way to escape the subjective hell of modern work is to work with your hands on something that is objective reality. His motorcycles, once repaired, either work well or they don't.

I agree with his analysis of the problem. And his is a nifty solution, but I think there's more ground to be gained in making work and management of it objective.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

Do you work in a cube or office? Do you work in a room full of tables? Do you wonder why sometimes you hate it? Do you wonder why everyone complains about some of the easiest "work" humans have ever done?

If yes, read this book.

A bit ponderous, you can tell Crawford used to be an academic. But in general he ruthlessly attacks today's concept of the best kind of work in a fairly readable way. Several passages keep coming to my mind, and what higher praise can you have for a thoughtful polemic?

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