Why middle-class kids want working-class jobs


by Richard E. Ocejo

I teach at CUNY, New York City’s public university system, so most of my students are from working-class and/or minority backgrounds. They’re very familiar with basic service jobs.  I often ask them to tell me what they do for work, and they name jobs like cashier, retail sales associate, food and beverage service, security, or some low- or entry-level office job like customer service or secretary.

I have learned that most of my students seem to have a strong work ethic, and they have internalized the received wisdom regarding these jobs: they’re “bad” as long-term jobs, but “good” for now, which is why they’re in college to ensure they don’t have to work these jobs for the rest of their lives. They want a stable job with decent pay and benefits, and they want to both enjoy and be respected for what they do.

During these conversations I often tell my students about my latest project and forthcoming book. For six years, I conducted ethnographic research on workers at four workplaces: bartenders at high-end craft cocktail bars, distillers at craft distilleries, barbers at upscale men’s barbershops, and butchers and counter workers at whole-animal butcher shops.

These jobs are all specialized, niche versions of their more common versions. Like everyone, my students are familiar with bartenders, barbers and butchers, and while they may not have ever encountered someone who makes hard alcohol, they certainly understand that someone has to do it.

When I ask them what they think about these jobs, they mainly just shrug: honest work, especially for people who don’t have other work options or who aspire to have another career and are just paying the bills. I occasionally have a student with a family member who works one of these jobs. In those cases, the message from their relative is usually: what I do pays the bills and suits me, but you should stay in school and do something else.

The real kicker comes when I tell them that these folks I studied, who work behind the bar, barber’s chair, butcher’s table, and counter and at the still, are mostly college graduates (or they dropped out of college or stopped pursuing a career as an artist or musician to work one of these jobs).  Some switched careers in office settings with stable pay and benefits to work in these industries.

In other words, the people I interviewed are young, educated, networked people who have other, seemingly better, job options than service, manual labor, and light manufacturing.  But they pursue these jobs as careers and proudly call themselves by their occupational title (“I’m a bartender”).

The big question my students then ask is: why?  What is it about these people and these jobs?

The simple answer is that these aren’t the typical versions of the occupations that everyone knows. They’re not the neighborhood bartender, the guy on the assembly line, the local barber, or the butcher at the supermarket.

It’s not possible to explain the totality of their work, or, by extension, their motivations for pursuing these jobs, by stating their primary task: serve drinks, make booze, cut hair, and cut meat. If these actions were all their jobs required, they’d quit. Most of my participants said they preferred a job that fulfilled them creatively, intellectually and even physically, and some explicitly said they wanted to work directly with other people.

Today’s “new economy” is variously called a “knowledge” and even a “creative” economy, in which ideas and human capital hold great value, as well as a service economy, in which both simple and complex interpersonal skills have become foundational to a majority of jobs.  Scholars rarely associate basic service jobs like bartender, barber, and butcher, or manufacturing jobs like distiller, as among the vaunted occupations in today’s knowledge industries, or at the cutting edge of the service economy.

But my participants would not have pursued these jobs if they didn’t see their potential to place them into a rarefied, and respected, segment of the new economy: workers who use their bodies, minds, and interpersonal skills to create and provide cultural and material products and services.

Many in the media and public dismiss these pursuits as “hipster” jobs, or as working-class roles that middle-class people are filling out of irony or as a joke. The reality couldn’t be further from these perceptions.

My research revealed the deeper meanings workers attach to these jobs. They allow them to enact a set of cultural repertoires through their work practices. These include learning, understanding, and communicating cultural knowledge that underpins their occupational communities and enhance their status, and acquiring and applying technical skills based on a sense of craft and craftsmanship.

So rather than just serving drinks, cocktail bartenders at specialized cocktails bars study “mixology,” a specific way to make drinks involving precise recipes and techniques. Rather than just manufacture spirits, craft distillers promote authenticity and local-ness through small-scale, intimate production. Rather than just cut hair, barbers at upscale shops deliberately construct masculine environments and create style using new and traditional barbering methods. Rather than just cut and sell meat, workers at whole-animal butcher shops actively apply a meat philosophy behind “good” and ethical meat while using artisanal butchery techniques.

Workers at each of these workplaces see promoting these sets of cultural knowledge and senses of craft to their consumers as fundamental to their jobs and occupational identities, while consumers constantly validate the work they do with gratitude for having given them the “best” version of these products and services they’ve ever had.

At the end of explaining, most of my students understand why these folks make these choices, at least intellectually. More than anything, they’re amused by this fascinating development in today’s economy, and hope they could also one day love and get social benefits for what they do.

Richard E. Ocejo is Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  His latest book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, will be published in May (Princeton University Press).



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