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‘Wait, I thought the guest blogs were over?’ I hear you exclaim. Well, yes but I received this today from my former editor (as well as mentor, friend and all round stand-up gent) Ciaran Pringle and decided to throw it up here. After all, it was during my time of working with Ciaran that I first travelled out to Australia and met Stephanie. So I have very fond memories of that period.
Also there is some big news coming shortly. Very excited. Cheers folks – Emmet.
Every now and then, I decide to live dangerously and judge a book by its cover. The odds are stacked against me, but that’s what makes the rare discovery of a gem so exciting. A couple of weeks back I was moseying through my favourite bookshop here in Dublin when I saw what looked like a block of wood on one of the display tables. It was, of course, a book with a wood-effect cover. Curious, I picked it up and read the title: The Case for Working with your Hands – or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good. A shiver ran down my spine. Here was a book about a subject that has occupied my thoughts on and off for almost thirty years – the entire duration of my seemingly endless career as a civil servant. Before running to the till, however, I scanned a couple of pages from the introduction to check for signs of pop psychology. You know the sort of thing I mean – chapter headings based on Arcade Fire song titles or repeated references to ‘self-actualisation’. Mercifully, it was free of all flummery. I bought it on the spot.
The American author, Matthew Crawford, is a philosopher (a real one) by training and a motorbike mechanic by inclination. As a teenager, he picked up extra pocket money helping in a local garage. From there, he graduated to a specialist motorbike repair shop, where he earned enough to put himself through the University of Chicago. After several years following the expected academic path, lecturing, working in a ‘think tank’, it became increasingly apparent that for him, fixing bikes was more satisfying, more – here’s the ‘eureka’ bit – intellectually challenging, than researching and writing papers on social policy. The really interesting thing about Crawford is that he took the next step – he chucked in the job at the think tank and opened his own bike repair shop, where he works to this day. The college grad became a tradesman.
Crawford uses his unlikely career path to explore the world of work and in particular to debunk the deeply entrenched notion that working with your hands is inherently inferior to working with your head. As this beautifully written book amply demonstrates, restoring a thirty year old Honda to its original state, or rewiring a house, or making a fitted wardrobe, requires as much if not more brain power than many desk-bound, white collar jobs – and is a hell of a lot more rewarding on many levels, though not necessarily at wallet level.
The introduction of mass-production processes into manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century is when the rot really set in. When Henry Ford started building ‘automobiles’, employees could expect to be involved in the construction and assembly of an entire car. This, Henry realised, was not an efficient way of churning out Model Ts for an insatiable market. Much better to have an assembly line, with each employee doing a specific task over and over again. It worked. But what made Henry as rich as Croesus turned his employees into automatons. Their jobs had been reduced to actions. Crawford rightly recognises this as a pivotal moment, when thinking was separated from doing.
Soon, the ‘time and motion’ men were applying the logic of the assembly line to every job, from processing insurance claims to making pencils. Complicated tasks were broken down into their component parts and these parts were distributed to employees who, in many cases, had no idea what the end product of their effort was. They were cogs in a machine, paid to do modular bits of activity divorced from any tangible end result. Job satisfaction went out the window and wages became compensation for drudgery. An inevitable consequence of this atomisation of work was that manual competence became devalued. Trades were for those who couldn’t make it into the professions, or even into an office job.
Fast-forward to today, and manual competence is almost frowned upon, and certainly not encouraged by the stuff we surround ourselves with. Crawford is excellent on our disengaged relationship with physical objects, how we automatically replace old things rather than fix them, a reflex relentlessly encouraged by the advertising industry. And even if we do decide to have a go at fixing something, our efforts are likely to be stymied by needless complexity or inaccessible innards. I laughed out loud at his description of the way basic motorbike engines have become obscured by layers of ‘electronic bullshit’.
When I was a kid, whenever something around the house broke, my dad could fix it with little more than a pliers and a screwdriver. Nowadays, such self-sufficiency is all but impossible. Try fixing a stalled DVD player or even a wonky washing machine – that is if you can open the damn thing in the first place. Our stuff is complex and cryptic and not for the technically fainthearted. And anyway, the market is skewed to such an extent that it’s often cheaper to buy a new gadget than replace a part in an old one.
On the work front, the ‘knowledge economy’ is now touted as the only game in town. Get a degree, get a Ph.D., get a job on the information superhighway, churning data in a virtual world where nothing has a concrete existence and where manual competence has no relevance. This should sound familiar – it’s what a lot of us do every working day of our lives.
When I left college in 1983 with a degree in biochemistry in my back pocket, Ireland was in the grip of a full-scale depression (what’s new!) and jobs in biochemistry, or any other branch of science, were non-existent. I managed to secure an administrative post in the Civil Service, which I took on the basis that it would tide me over for six months or a year – until I got a real job in a real laboratory. A year passed, then two, then ten. By the time the economy picked up and science jobs began to appear in the ‘Appointments’ pages, my knowledge of biochemistry had become rusty and a new generation of young, up to date grads were trampling all over my C.V. So here I am, twenty-eight years later, a middle-aged, middle-manager doing a job that still feels kind of temporary to me.
This is a wonderful book. It’s thoughtful, quirky and analytical – and if you’ve ever looked out of your office window at the guy from ‘Shrubs in Tubs’ across the street planting flowers in a hanging basket and wished you were him, this book is for you. It spoke directly to me, a square peg in a round hole – and there are millions of other square pegs out there bashing themselves into round holes too.