Thinking about Americans losing the ability to work with their hands

A New York Times essay argues we are losing something as Americans because fewer people can work skillfully with their hands:

“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”

That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income…

Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture…

As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.

I don’t doubt that the ability to produce craftmenship is worthwhile, particularly if one is a homeowner. But I wonder about the larger value of working with one’s hands. Why can’t using a mouse or a controller be considered “working with one’s hands”? Of course, it fits in a literal sense but there is a difference in production and skills. Yet, it still requires effort and finesse to be able to effectively utilize the newest machines. Perhaps we have swapped our traditional toolbox for a “digital toolbox.”

If the world is moving toward an information and service economy, is this necessarily bad? This reminds me of a piece in The Atlantic months ago about a contest where programmers had to try to put together a computer that could converse like a human. Working with tools is not uniquely human but thinking and reasoning might be. Does this make working with our hands less valuable compared to other possible activities?

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