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.