The following article published by The Sydney Morning Herald uncovers why tradies have it made when it comes to overall career happiness.
This week I spent many hours black-jacking a retaining wall to waterproof it. It’s a horrible job – filthy, hot, painful, and slow – involving three coats of vile bituminous goop meticulously applied in a back-twisting trench and necessarily followed by prolonged and strenuous self-cleansing, all rendered the more challenging by absence of running water. I thought it’d be kinda fun, like painting – but actually it resembles painting as prostitution resembles making love, abysmally low pleasure-to-stickiness ratio. Yet throughout, even as I slowly scrubbed the tar from my skin with eucalyptus oil, I was thinking this: doing real stuff is cool. Professions are for mugs. Had I my choice again, I’d be a tradie.
True, the professions still command a kind of status. But much of that status is now spurious, drawing on obsolete presumptions about the rafted nature of class, education, power, uselessness and wealth.
Professionals, we think, have agency. Doctors, lawyers, architects, dentists and vets (we think) will always be employed. They’ll travel the world with plump pockets, furnished minds and noble purpose, gathering both money and respect from their efforts to make the world a better place. They have both altruism and choice. What could be more fulfilling?
I wish. These days, although many of the brightest and most starry-eyed kids still fight tooth-and-nail to become one, the professional’s dominant emotion must be disappointment.
Countless doctors are forced into piece-work for soulless managerialist medical centres, systemically designed to preclude the empathetic holism once considered the essence of general practice. They spend long hours in windowless cells for miserable pay, yoked by a production-line mentality that forbids them from spending more than the allotted time with each patient.
Hot-shot lawyers, from the shining stars of law school to those who finally, exhaustedly make partner, seldom escape the expectation that they’ll devote their entire existence to enriching amoral corporate pirates whose highest life-goal is to diddle their business partners and evade tax.
Architects, who emerge from uni brandishing two degrees and the intoxicating belief that they can make poetry in three dimensions, are generally forced to work either for wealthy narcissists or low-rent developers, or both.
Tradies, on the other hand, get to do good stuff for real people. They hone their skills, make masses of dough, become their own bosses and have decent colleagues. Why wouldn’t you just do that?
Because, status. Both of my grandfathers left school at 13 to help feed the family. One became a post-and-telegraph boy, one a painter and decorator. Both highly intelligent, they lived good and useful lives but, because usefulness itself was sullied by the un-education that trapped them into it, theirs were not regarded as lives to emulate. They had no status.
This is interesting. It’s as though use itself is something we despise. Of course women’s fashions have always played to this. The long nails, tight skirts and pencil heels all declare: “See how not-useful I am? My beauty derives from my complete lack of utility.” Art is similarly divided, with the useless qualifying as “fine” art and anything useful becoming mere craft.
The same unacknowledged snobbery, the same disdain for use, underlies our attitude to physical work. It’s okay, for example, for an educated person to work 10 hours in a windowless office then drive the Lexus thus funded to an equally synthetic gym for the day’s physical exercise. But it’s not okay for that person to get the same (or better) cross-training by working as a brickie.
These old distinctions no longer serve us well. Working blue-collar doesn’t necessarily imply under-education. Why wouldn’t you take a degree or two in art history and pre-Socratic philosophy, make of your mind a fully landscaped pleasure garden for lifelong exploration, then do a post-graduate apprenticeship in welding or carpentry?
I know what you’ll say. Education is wasted if all you’re going to do is make windows or weld pipes. But I think that debases education, as well as work.
Education is not about making money. It’s not vocational training. Education furnishes the mind and, more importantly, plenishes the citizen. Absent an educated populace, musical, artistic and literary genius will die unrecognised. Absent an army of appreciators, cultures cannot accumulate. We all need it and we all benefit from it, so education of this mind-furnishing sort should be routine, universal and free.
The question of what you do for a living is entirely separate. And the truth is, making stuff is fun. Like, really deep-satisfying fun. And making useful stuff happen in the world in a way that is also beautiful and ecologically conscious is almost the best fun ever. I cannot see why you’d spend your life arguing over merger finance when you could be building something. Making stuff happen.
You might think this is just me, a product of a life spent too long in the abstract. To some extent yes, you’re right.
But I’m far from alone. Even 200 years post-industrial revolution, most of what we still call “progress” involves outsourcing to machines the work of life and replacing it with more abstract engagement. It’s a dangerous strategy. Like Roman overlords becoming intellectually as well as physically dependent upon their better-educated Greek slaves, we are easily undermined by this illusion of power; our agency not enhanced but diminished.
Apart from sex, life revolves around buildings and food. In both, modernism has taken us too far from the ground. This increasing abstraction leaves us craving the real – yearning to engage more fully with the house-making and food-growing that planetary life entails. Hence all the pickling parties, broth-making classes, hand-writing tuition and ceramics courses to which earnest young professionals now flock, not to mention the ever-growing Maker Movement.
Spiritual traditions, from yoga to Christianity, exhort us to integrate mind/soul more truly with matter. The incarnation is not just for virtue, but for fun. For joy. To me, determinedly blacking my wall in exuberant anticipation of the delicious, dry room to come, that joy seems hard to beat.