I met Giancarlo on the first day of my internship at a whole-animal butcher shop in New York City. He didn’t fit the traditional stereotype of a butcher—he was young, college-educated, and had previously worked as a manager at a medical center. I asked him why he’d decided to pursue a career in butchery.
“I was tired of working in a box,” Giancarlo said. “When I was younger I always loved making food, and I always loved things that involved food. And the meat portion was always my favorite.” So he decided to leave desk jobs behind, and found work at a charcuterie store and a slaughterhouse. Eventually he became a student in a butchery and meat certification program—which had led to his current job, surrounded by cows and pigs hanging from the ceiling and a variety of hooks and knives.
I met a lot of people like Giancarlo over the course of my research for my book Masters of Craft: New Jobs in the Old Urban Economy, which explores the rising popularity—and cool factor—of traditionally blue-collar, manual labor jobs among young, well-educated men. These jobs included butchers as well as cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, and upscale men’s barbers. All of the occupations, I noted, were associated with a particular breed of masculinity: skilled body work. I believe that one reason that some men from middle-class backgrounds are now flocking to this kind of work is a desire—sometimes clearly expressed, sometimes hidden—to return to a time when men could make a living by using their bodies.
Men face an interesting set of challenges at this point in history, particularly in their working lives. For much of the twentieth century, the breakdown of the variety of jobs for men was pretty simple: blue-collar workers did the physical labor, while white-collar workers did the mental labor. (The so-called pink-collar service jobs like teaching and nursing, which required emotional labor, were for women.)
Recent changes have complicated this general order. First, “good” manual labor jobs—the kind that pay well and offer benefits—are increasingly rare. There are fewer and fewer jobs in such fields as manufacturing and coal mining, and market trends and automation threaten to eliminate many more. Today’s generation of men seeking employment find it difficult to make a stable, middle-class living by using their bodies in their work.
The young men I spoke with took pride in mastering technical skills that go beyond traditional versions of their callings. But even “good” jobs—that is, stable and consistent, not to mention well-paying and with benefits—in white-collar occupations have become more rare, thanks to the rise of freelancing and contract-based work. Meanwhile, traditionally feminine skills like empathy and communication are becoming requirements for some of the economy’s fastest-growing occupations, like those in consultancy, health care, and public relations.
In this environment, as both traditional men’s jobs and traditionally masculine skills disappear from the labor market, some young, well-educated men are pursuing blue-collar, manly occupations as careers. Nostalgia for the bygone days when men made a living by using their bodies, and all their attendant imagery—bartenders who wear swanky attire like vests and arm garters, distillers who get to operate submersible-looking machines, barbers who get to work in a vintage-looking barbershop, and butchers who put on scabbards and bloody aprons—certainly plays a role. The jobs themselves evoke simple, honest work, and require a set of clearly defined skills—a far cry from the increasing uncertainty of much white-collar work.
The people I studied often spoke of their work the way other manual laborers—from coal miners to mechanics—speak of theirs. It was more than a job; it was an identity. But they are also reinventing the nature of these jobs. The young men I spoke with took pride in mastering technical skills that go beyond traditional versions of their callings. To make a craft cocktail and a craft spirit, for instance, cocktail bartenders and distillers have to learn to precisely hone their sense of taste. They constantly smell and sample what they consume, while paying attention to the coldness of a shaker or the silkiness of a distillate coming off the still and watching for changes in coloration.
By combining manual with mental labor, men can integrate their jobs into today’s knowledge-based economy. While these jobs fundamentally involve manual labor, they also require workers to know and be able to speak about cultural tastes, especially to a culturally savvy and relatively affluent group of consumers. Given their educated, middle-class backgrounds, these workers already know or are easily able to acquire understandings of taste, like why filet mignon isn’t a very flavorful cut of meat, or which musicians’ haircuts might appeal to a customer at the barbershop.
This change is important because, in addition to allowing workers to reclaim a lost sense of masculinity by working with their bodies, “cool” manual labor jobs also give workers social benefits. By combining manual with mental labor, men can integrate their jobs into today’s knowledge-based economy. They use their creativity to make new flavors and styles, from rhubarb-infused gin to modern pompadours, and create highly personal products and looks for consumers by simply getting to know them. Unlike typical blue-collar workers, these special versions have the power to shape and influence culture and tastes, prompting dive bars to adopt artisanal cocktails and spurring chain supermarkets to sell local meat. This influence is unprecedented for manual laborers—and it gives these workers a unique level of respect, status, and attention.
Giancarlo might have had a more stable work life if he had stuck with the medical center. He certainly would have had access to traditional benefits like dental insurance and a 401(k). But he made a calculation to forego those advantages in favor of work that would require him to use his hands as well as his head—and that formed the basis of a powerful identity. In the years ahead, it’s likely that we will see more and more men like him—finding new ways to revive their sense of masculinity at work.