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Imagine a World Where People Love Their Jobs

With 15 million men and women unemployed, the first step to fixing the job crisis is re-imagining what Americans should be working on in the first place.

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In this context, it is worth recalling the profusion of skilled practices that once existed. In the mid-sixteenth century, a book described ninety different crafts, including jewelers, metalsmiths, goldsmiths, coiners, tapestry makers, printers, musical instrument makers, dyers, potters, tanners, weavers, carpenters, bakers, and millers. Two centuries later, Diderot’s Encyclopedia counted two hundred and fifty. By the middle of the nineteenth century, in a medium-sized town in England, over fifty crafts were still being practiced. Over the last century and a half, however, the social division of labor penetrated ever more dimensions of daily life, with the result that very few occupations requiring skill, knowledge, experience, and long apprenticeships have survived.

Thus it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how to revive what has vanished both from practice and from memory, let alone how a world might come into being where the greater number of things we use or, better yet—to suggest the enormous change in consciousness that is required—things we enjoy using in our daily life are made by people who enjoy making them. I have in mind here the kind of pleasure and pride that accomplished craftsmen at the Waterford Crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland, lost when their factory shut down earlier this year. Sean Egan, who worked as a crystal engraver for twenty-five years, spoke of his ten-year apprenticeship: “It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

We might also take a lesson from the movement for sustainable, organic, local farming. For decades, champions of this movement have been all but banished to the fringe of respectable discourse, but lately they have been getting a hearing, as evidenced by Michael Pollan’s lengthy “Open Letter to the Next Farmer-in-Chief” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, in October 2008. It seems to me that a good starting point for how to bring about a similar revolution in thinking and practice when it comes to work is the principle that just as monoculture is disastrous for our health and security when it comes to food, lack of variety in work is just as disastrous for our well-being and happiness. The ideology of ceaseless economic growth, made possible by the division of labor that has filled our world with ugly things from the Styrofoam cup to smog in our skies, has always been vapid and destructive. Now, with the implosion of the global financial system, the American way of life as model for global expansion stands exposed as unsustainable as well.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of Repeal Of Reticence. She is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty and writes a monthly column about how the world looks and feels for The New Republic Online. Her essays on aesthetic and political matters have appeared in The New Republic, Salmagundi, Raritan, and other “little magazines.”