Back to the Future: Re-imagining Work through Craft

As previous contributions to Futures of Work have noted, the post-work imaginary is informed by the idea that manufacturing and service work alike are susceptible to automation. What is left for human workers is immaterial and affective labour dominated by intellectual, creative and social skills that are hard, if not impossible, to codify in an algorithm. In the 1990s, the premise connecting figures as seemingly opposed as Toni Negri and Tony Blair was a sense that the creative industries were the vanguard of economic development and would produce the jobs of the future. Like the industrial proletariat in Marx’s time, creative workers were a numerical minority but for the radical left and neo-liberals alike they exemplified the coming ‘new economy’ focused on the production of knowledge, meaning and culture.

Even within the core creative industries of film, television, radio and publishing – businesses where symbolic texts are the main output – there is a need for craft workers to translate a creative vision into a product through set-design, editing, filming, recording, lighting etc. This crafting is an essential and inseparable part of ‘creativity’, with even digital commodities being more than just the manifestation of a purely immaterial, creative act. They have to be made, and it is in this making that creativity actually happens, and not just in the formulation of an initial idea or drafting of a script. As Mark Banks has argued, however essential, jobs that are designated ‘craft’ carry a lower status in the creative industries than ‘artistic’ work, echoing older struggles between arts and crafts. They inhabit a contradictory space between the romantic ideal of a collective workshop-based form of autonomous skilled production, and the managerial drive towards deskilled detail work in an increasingly fragmented division of labour. Banks’s own evaluation that craft labour’s “low status (compared to artistic labour), and its amenability to rational management and technical control” risked destroying the last vestiges of ‘good work’ in craft production, parallels Braverman’s study of the degradation of craft manufacturing in the 1970s. The future of creative work, it seems, is likely to follow the path of manufacturing and routine interactive service work, with Tayloristic control and task-fragmentation destroying the material bases of craftwork.

Neo-craft industries

Against the degradation of craft, and the valorisation of immaterial creativity, recent years have seen a resurgence of what we might call neo-craft industries. From artisanal coffee-roasters, cider-makers, brewers and gin-distillers to high-end barbers and whole-animal butchers, sociologists like Emma-Jayne Abbots, Thomas Thurnell-Read, and Richard Ocejo, have all pointed to the growing number of small, artisanal or craft producers. These neo-craft industries combine a traditional craft imaginary, concerned with the skilful production of high-quality products, with innovation in both product and process. Craft brewing provides a good example. More than 1,000 new breweries opened in the UK between 2012 and 2017 – an increase of more than 60%. By the end of 2017 there were over 6,000 craft breweries in the USA, accounting for 23% of the total beer market, though with some evidence of slowing growth. Operating at a smaller scale than giants like AB InBev or MillerCoors, these brewers offer a less industrialised organization of production, combining an integrated labour process with innovation in terms of beer styles, ingredients, strengths, and brewing techniques. Whilst ‘craft’ would appear to hark back to a golden age of meaningful work predating task-fragmentation and industrialisation, the small-scale production and ceaseless innovation suggests more of a post-industrial imaginary, akin to the Third Italy of Piore and Sabel. The focus on taste, and innovation in the meaning and significance of beer, places brewing as a kind of cultural industry, with brewers drawing on a repertoire of symbolic authenticity that has as much in common with an independent music label as a traditional brewery.

It is easy to dismiss high-priced artisanal products like craft beer as little more than a novel way for affluent consumers to engage in conspicuous consumption, showing off their refined tastes, knowledge of provenance, and relative affluence. But these jobs also suggest a distinct imaginary of work. As Ocejo notes in his book Masters of Craft, these jobs invert the usual aspirations of social mobility, with middle-class, college educated kids rejecting office work and the professions in favour of butchering, barbering or bar-tending – all traditionally working class jobs. Ocejo explains this attraction as resulting from the combination of embodied mastery with cultural knowledge. The new craft masters must not only be able to serve a drink or cut up an animal, but also justify the value of that drink or cut to customers, explaining the production process and provenance of ingredients in a way that establishes authenticity and justifies cost, as well as teaching them how to appreciate what may well be unfamiliar.

This combination of cultural and craft knowledge promises ‘good work’ by combining autonomy, self-realization and sociality with high-quality products that contribute to the common good. The promise for consumers is of a defetishised relationship with producers, where the production itself is made present in consumption, and the authenticity of the product is secured by the producer.

For producers, the promise is of a less alienated form of work. As many small breweries began as owner-operated micro-breweries, the imaginary behind this kind of work akin to the socialism “of the small peasant and master-craftsman” that Marx associated with Pierre Proudhon. Of course, for every small-scale brewer concerned with lifestyle and ‘making a living, not making money’, there is an entrepreneur looking to cash out to one of the big brewers. In this respect brewing is again similar to the music industry, in which new genres spawn small, independent record labels, which are later bought out by the majors and retained primarily as a sub-brand to capitalise on their apparent authenticity and organic connection to the grassroots of the scene.

Cool jobs?

A key question for future research is whether these neo-craft jobs can offer security, stable employment, good pay and a career, as well as meaning and self-realisation. From recent research I have undertaken in the craft brewing industry, the picture is quite mixed. For employees, the credibility of being in a ‘cool job’ might contribute to a wider identity project and desirable lifestyle, but pay for brewers and bar staff is rarely much above a living wage, and often minimum wage. Even a head brewer in an established craft brewery would earn less than a qualified accountant, so economically these jobs are not a simple replacement for traditional white-collar work. This picture is complicated by many small breweries being owner-operated affairs, with very few employees. Whilst a small brewer might well be happy just making a living, that will mean short hours for any brewery assistants they employ, and little chance for career progression unless they move on to a larger brewer, or have the means to set up their own brewery – an unlikely prospect when earning well below the UK average.

Another question about the new craft work is whether it can promote equality and diversity. Not everyone can combine the practical skills with the cultural performances required to do craft. Ocejo gives the example of a Mexican butcher who was the fastest and most effective working in a high-end, whole animal butchery, but whose ethnic and class identity prevented him from performing the kinds of ‘service education’ work that front-line, customer-focused craft work requires. As Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson have shown, interactive service work often places a premium on “looking good and sounding right”. The ‘right’ appearance and way of speaking, from the perspective of an affluent consumer or manager, is likely to be classed, gendered and racialised in quite specific ways, reproducing entrenched social divisions and creating a two-tier labour market that parallels the polarisation in consumption markets between ‘mass’ and ‘craft’ products.

With neo-craft work, this focus on performing for customers extends beyond service work into material production. Breweries will often open their doors on weekends to offer brewery tours, or host a ‘tap room’, where customers can drink in the place where the beer is brewed. Brewers in the craft-beer scene also need to get out to meet their audience, performing at ‘Meet the Brewer’ events in public houses and bottle-shops, or spending time on social media. For a small craft brewer, this responsibility for the quality and cultural meaning of their beers is an essential part of the job: a second workload on top of material production. In a small brewery, brewers spend relatively little of their time actually brewing. A brew day will be busy but may only happen a couple of times a week. Much of the working week will be given over to relatively unskilled work, like cleaning and disinfecting, but a significant proportion of a small brewer’s time might be spent managing the business, on social media, or visiting pubs. Spending time in pubs can help brewers to monitor the quality of their beer at the point of sale, to see how customers are responding to it, and to maintain relationships (and therefore sales) with landlords and bar managers. With tap rooms to run, meet-the-brewer events, and a range of other activities, the work of a craft brewer can start to look as much like interactive service and brand work as it is skilled, material production.

If neo-craft production, like craft-brewing, is one possible future of work then it is certainly not a jobless, post-work future we can expect. The hands-on labour of cleaning and brewing is physically demanding, expensive to automate, and produces a material commodity: a cask, keg, bottle, or can of beer. But the value of that beer is also cultural: the work of symbolic communication and the performance of the craft brewer in establishing the ‘craftness’ of their beer, the provenance of its ingredients, and the authenticity of its production. This cultural production fetishizes the craft worker as the guarantor of value. Rather than a fetishism of the commodity, then, we have a fetishization of the producer. This conceals as much about the work as it reveals. In the production of beer, for example, whilst bar staff, brewers and beer aficionados might wax lyrical about the relative merits and taste profiles of different hops, yeasts and malts, the work of farming and harvesting hops, growing and malting barley and other grains, or bottling and canning (which is often outsourced by smaller breweries), and even smelting aluminium and recycling cans, is all essential to the production of a craft beer – but only the artisanal brewing process itself is deemed to be culturally significant enough to be semiotically incorporated into the product. In this sense, the apparent defetishisation of the craft industries is at best partial.

Craft production, then, is riven with tensions. It promises to make productive work visible in the product but conceals as much as it reveals. It often focuses on local production and sourcing but caters to global taste cultures and, in the case of brewing at least, on securing the best quality ingredients, sourcing hops from around the world. It calls back to a pre-industrial era of traditional, artisanal production but its products are often the most innovative, aggressively challenging the mass-market homogeneity of industrial products. And finally, it promises de-alienated, meaningful work and self-realisation, but fetishizises the producer to a degree that risks a deeper self-alienation without the material benefits of job security and pay that industrialised production promised, at least in the mid-twentieth century.

Whatever the future of work looks like in practice, it is clear that the imaginary of work as craft is a great way to sell a product, and that skilful mastery of physical production, combined with culturally valued expertise, can offer a form of meaningful work. What is less clear is whether it can also offer job security, good pay and working conditions, and equality of opportunity. Equality, security, and decent pay and conditions have historically been secured by collective bargaining and union organizing. The artisanal, entrepreneurial imaginary of neo-craft work, coupled with the small size of businesses, sits ill at ease with the more industrial logics of trades unions, even if historically they have been a key mechanism for defending skilled work against industrialisation and degradation. To make neo-craft work genuinely ‘good work’ may require an accompanying neo-guild form of collective action and organization, albeit without the patriarchal and exclusionary logic that has so often characterised both guild and union defences of male-dominated, skilled trades.


Christopher Land is Professor of Work and Organisation at Anglia Ruskin University, UK.

Image Credit: Thomas Picauly on Unsplash