Saturday, April 16, 2011

Service Economy Anxiety, pt I

While economists differ on the practical implications of America’s long shift to a service economy, almost every discussion of the change carries with it the suggestion, however faint, that something essential to our national character is being lost—some native spark of boldness, ingenuity and determination. While we still want to align the American character with the pioneers, inventors and farmers who founded and built our country, the stat's show that we've become a nation of cashiers, marketers and money managers, careers that require more decorum than boldness, more social intelligence than ingenuity, more emotional endurance than determination.

Our cultural anxiety over this perceived loss has found many expressions. Our butchers, bakers and candlestick makers might be increasingly marginalized in our nation's economic life, but we're far from ready to give up on the values and myths we associate with the skilled trades. It's visible in the long rise of the artisanal movement which has transformed previously low-status jobs like butchers and bakers into forms of performance art (at least in Brooklyn) as well as inspired manifestos like Crawford's recent Shop class as Soulwork that argues for the fundamental, philosophical value of working with one's hands. Only by making, Crawford claims, can we liberate ourselves from the soul-killing labor of managing and serving.

My own research with Creative Class folks supports Crawford's claim that a life devoted to customer service can make a man feel, well, less manly. The vast majority of pro-class men I've interviewed over the years actively seek out hands on work in their off hours--from farming to carpentry--because, as they put it, it just seems more "real." Their remarks repeatedly turn to the uneasiness that their two hands aren't being put to much use. "I want to see that I've actually made something...accomplished something.." "At work there are a lot days when I'm not sure what I've done. I know I've done something, but it's hard to describe."

Another manifestation of what am I calling service economy anxiety is the way social media platforms are rapidly transforming into giant forums for complaints about service. Just about every brand on Facebook now has a page devoted to how much it sucks, but more on that next time.

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