Most Americans now work in white-collar and service industry jobs rather than in manual labor. Technological innovation and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas continues to reduce the need for blue collar workers. And gone are the days where many individuals earned their living through farming. Only 19% of Americans now live in rural areas, and less than 2% live on farms.
(Chart source: “Occupational Changes During the 20th Century”)
In addition, most of us have been acclimated to the view that non-manual labor jobs are “normal”—whether it’s through the 12-plus years we spend attending schools and sitting quietly in our seats, or the humorous portrayals of office life we see in our entertainment industry.
But this large-scale move away from manual labor is a dramatic departure from the past, and one wonders: what is its effect on us and American society? Here is what former Harvard historian Christopher Dawson had to say on the matter:
“The more the technological order advances, and the greater the pressure it exerts on the individual, the stronger is the emotional reaction by which the forces that have been suppressed find release. In the pre-technological order, the craftsman or the manual laborer tended to release their psychic tensions in the exercise of their work. But in the technological order this is not so, the man who drives a truck or minds a machine has to subordinate himself to the discipline of the machine. His emotions find no expression in his work, or if they do he is a bad workman. They must find an outlet outside his working—his free time—occasionally by violent action, but more usually by the contemplation of the patterns of violent action that are provided by the mechanized industries that cater to this need. But this is not a real solution. It is only a temporary palliative, and the fundamental emotional needs remain unsatisfied…
[T]hough the technological order frees man from the old forms of manual labour, it exacts a much higher toll from his nervous energies. The same process is at work all through the technological system—in the higher ranks of business management as well as lower down—everywhere the system exacts more and more from its human instruments. And what is the use of even the highest financial rewards, if the recipient dies of over-tension when he is in his ‘50’s, and never attains the goal of leisured retirement?”
According to Dawson, one of the secondary benefits of manual labor is the “release of psychic tensions”—both through the physicality of the work performed and the creative outlet it provides. In lieu of manual labor, some people choose to sublimate their psychic tensions through outlets such as going to the gym, working in the yard, or a hobby.
If not sublimated through more genteel outlets, Dawson believes that the tensions will find release through “violent action, but more usually by the contemplation of the patterns of violent action that are provided by the mechanized industries that cater to this need” (e.g., through viewing violent television shows or sports). “But,” as Dawson writes, “this is not a real solution. It is only a temporary palliative, and the fundamental emotional needs remain unsatisfied.” In other words, Dawson believes that a continued move away from manual labor results in a rise in stressed out and frustrated individuals engaged in a constant search for therapeutic means of enduring their work. And eventually, “violence” may become an increasingly sought-after therapy.
There has always been and will always be desk jobs. But historically, they were the province of a small minority. The sedentary and “cog-in-the-machine” nature of these jobs can represent a real threat to one’s humanity, and thus requires a counteractive discipline and regimen that most people do not have the strength to impose on themselves. Manual labor, on the other hand, is a form of work with a built-in discipline and means for relieving tension.
Most of us are probably thankful we’ve been “delivered” from a life of manual labor. But the moral value of this deliverance remains to be seen.