The End of Manual Labor

How hypocritical of me to sing the praises of manual labor for another gender, given that I will do almost anything to shirk it. But as young men run amok and older men grope for a new way to feel good about themselves and, failing to find one, kill themselves or others, I have begun to wonder if eradicating what we used to call “real” work has done us all a disservice.

The division of housework remains gendered and lopsided for heterosexual couples, so we women still have plenty of physical stuff to occupy our hands. If you have ever watched somebody vacuum when she is angry, you know it can be therapeutic. Men, though, used to chop wood and fix stuff and change the car’s oil in their spare time, and if they preferred the sort of work they could see and touch, skilled trades paid more than a living wage. Physical strength could be used to provide as well as protect. Working with your hands gave you proof, at the end of the day, that you had changed a tiny piece of the world.

Those of us at home in the abstract, happier to manipulate words and numbers and algorithms, can still work with a sense of agency and satisfaction. But as robots take over assembly lines, manufacturing gets outsourced, AI turns security into surveillance, and all that used to be mechanical turns to code, people who prefer hands-on work are left in the dust. Even traditional hobbies are fading—it is hard to spend a Saturday tinkering on an engine in your own garage if you cannot do a computerized scan of the components.

As manual labor vanishes, so does the willingness to work out of doors, sweat, endure a little discomfort. Kids who are not acing STEM might once have dreamed of building things or roofing or landscaping; now they announce that they will design video games.

We do not need millions of video game designers. We do, even with all the tech, still need people who can keep us safe, but joining the police force just seems like a way to get killed and soldiering means learning enough tech to push buttons for abstract kills. What is the point of even learning to drive a truck, only to be replaced by a driverless one in the near future?

More and more men in this country feel unemployable and useless, and the demotion fills them with rage. In Tana French’s lyrical new novel, The Searcher, the main character is a former Chicago police officer, a guy who grew up in the backwoods and knows his way around the traditional male occupations of hunting, fishing, and protecting. He has decided that what the young men he arrested “really yearned after, whether they knew it or not, was a rifle and a horse and a herd of cattle to drive through dangerous terrain. Given those, plenty of them—not all, but plenty—would have turned out fine.” There are older guys I would like to throw on a horse, too, give them something to do besides grouse. Watching adventure on a screen or ranting about conspiracies does not count.

It sounds stereotypical and reactionary to talk about the male need for physical challenge and action, a proving ground of solid and visible effort, a little honest danger even—but there are some old truths at hand. “When a person sets to work,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “even if it is the most unqualified, primitive, simple work, the human soul calms down. As soon as a person starts to work, all the demons leave him and cannot approach him. A man becomes a man.”

We have redefined—are still redefining—what it even means to be a man, or a woman, or a bit of both. But we have not yet solved the work part, other than throwing it up for grabs. The old category of “women’s work” is never done, and women are happy to share it. But domestic labor will not give all of us a sufficient sense of purpose.

What we need most as a society—and cannot outsource to machines—is compassionate care for the elderly and infirm (though we are trying hard to turn it over to the robots). In New World Same Humans, David Mattin writes that as automation expands and society ages, “it’s possible to imagine a world in which productivity is held to be a virtue only of machines, while simply being there for one another is the only true work of humans.” That sounds noble, but will men who are out of work embrace that role? Even I cringe at the thought. Let me do something I can shape on my own, not just wear myself out trying helplessly to soothe incurable misery or gratify an elderly stranger’s whims. That is the hardest work of all. It makes laying brick sound idyllic.

And that makes me wonder why we have been so loath to appreciate manual labor.

Even Plato frowned upon it, insisting that people’s bodies were marred and their souls “bowed and mutilated by their vulgar occupations,” writes Emrys Westacott. Aristotle would have barred mechanics, farmers, and tradesmen from citizenship. In 1571, William Alley, Bishop of Exeter, wrote that it was “illiberal and servile to get the living with hand and sweat of the body.”

Maybe they were wrong. And maybe we have royally messed up all our lives by dividing the physical from the mental so completely. The finest James Joyce scholar I ever knew was an Irish maintenance guy on campus; we first struck up a conversation while he was replacing a light bulb for me. My husband is happiest teaching history, so when he started tuckpointing and painting, I asked nervously, “How was your day? Was it fun?” He shook his head. “It was satisfying.”

Working with his hands is quite a switch for my bespectacled husband, teased his whole life by a lean, strong mother who grew up on a farm and pronounced her son “soft.” But it makes nice change to do work of obvious practical value and see immediate results. When he teaches, he comes home zinging. When he sorts a client’s excess stuff or mortars a brick wall, he comes home tired, contented, and calm.

Society categorizes us, and then we obey its categories. After centuries of prioritizing sedate mental work, we who are wedded to our screens turn our Roombas loose and then jog at our standing desks, desperate for a little balance. If we were never seduced into the life of the mind, we sit idle and fume, because the physical work is drying up fast.

COVID-19 has given us a fresh appreciation for “essential work.” Now we might want to rethink what is essential.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.