Everyone Should Spend at Least One Summer Doing Manual Labor

America needs an economy that values and protects volunteerism, community and blue-collar work

Admit it: You daydream about quitting your office job and finally heading upstate to work with your hands and start a hyperlocal permaculture farm. Or maybe the dream is opening a little bakery, or becoming a woodworker or tossing on an apron and fulfilling those Chez Panisse fantasies of life as a cook in a Vermont inn.

It’s the cycle a lot of white-collar workers know well. Turns out, sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen isn’t great for the human body. Burnout, too, is a real force; research suggests that gritting your teeth through a job you quietly despise is a recipe for turbulent mental health problems. These things are problematic in a good year, but in 2020, it’s getting even harder to justify treading water at an uncertain office gig when the U.S. is burning and the economy is sideways. The traditional markers of success — retirement savings, a mortgage, a newborn and their college fund, etc. — seem like fraught aspirations for many.

So no, you’re not crazy for wishing you had a “simpler,” more “organic” job where you can stop peering at digits on a spreadsheet and just make some damn cabinets. I fall victim to the mood all the time, picturing myself standing in a cafe kitchen, prepping a case of heirloom tomatoes for the lunch rush. The hilarious irony here is that I actually did that job as a teenager, chopping endless pounds of produce and scraping the delicate membrane off raw tuna for hours while working in my parents’ sushi restaurant. Later, in college, I spent 20 hours a week building live theater sets in the university shop, cutting and drilling wood all day. I daydream about that, too, although I have zero ability in woodworking beyond following detailed orders.

Why do so many people crave this 180-degree turn from their normal lives?

The fact that we’re embroiled in the aforementioned national collapse is the obvious factor; it’s no coincidence that we saw a boom in “work-with-your-handsaspirations after the Great Recession a decade ago. When things get rough and money disappears, people tend to question the rationale for their labor, and it’s tough to justify working so hard for such intangible results.

I also figure the urge must stem from the cultural mythology of America — a landscape of wilderness and fertility, tamed by well-traveled hands in the name of liberty and happiness. We know of the Oregon Trail and the everyday people who turned west, ready and desperate to start their lives anew on a far-off plot of land. America promised its people a role and identity in a budding society. To farm, build and bake was more than just work — it was the foundation of the American dream.

But the idyllic image around honest, consistent labor started to fade in the 20th century, after the boom of the New Deal faded into uncertainty in so many blue-collar industries. Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. all peddled the mythology of hard work and proud tradesmen, but the economic crashes and globalization of the 1970s and 1980s pulled the promise of a family, house and stability further away from workers. Given the country was built by slaves and on Native American bloodshed, maybe the myths about working the land with your hands was doomed from the start. Even still, it’s easy to peer at history-book sketches of the olden days, when America was still an agrarian society, and wonder if you could’ve thrived.

Here’s the thing about mythology, though: We leave out the unsavory realities. It’s easy to understate how brutal working a physical job can be, even when you’ve had a part-time taste of it. The cramps from so much chopping, the burns from frying tempura, the dipshit customers and the overflowing toilets. The endless splinters, back pain and sore knees. There’s the cultural stigma of manual labor jobs, too; Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, felt compelled enough to launch a campaign advocating for tradesmen and manual laborers.

I see the reality of this kind of work in my mom, who took on early jobs as a housekeeper when she arrived from Korea in the 1970s and ground out two decades in restaurant kitchens after I was born. She hates how her feet look, now that they’re calloused and scarred from thousands of hours spent standing. I’m not sure she ever found joy in working with her hands, even if they paid for my privileges. She was tough as nails, yet the exhaustion is obvious when I ask her about those 70-hour weeks she spent alongside my dad.

“You don’t stop because you can’t stop,” she tells me in Korean over the phone. “I didn’t even take pee breaks because the shifts were so busy in the restaurant. It’s not all so romantic to me.”

Your mileage may differ, of course. There are countless stories of people who quit their white-collar livelihoods in order to pursue a new existence as a mechanic, a baker or an artist and actually found satisfaction and fulfillment (and maybe improved brain health). Given the ways American life is collapsing under COVID, racism and capitalist failures, it’s natural that people feel desperate to get away from their computer and into something that makes them feel more whole and rooted to something tangible. Only half of Americans say they get a sense of identity from their work. That’s a whole lot of people who feel alienated from the fruits of their labor. (Somewhere, Karl Marx is nodding sagely.)

Maybe the solution then is to allow people to immerse into the kind of labor they think they crave. It could be a sabbatical, of sorts, from your normal work — a kind of government- or employer-mandated volunteer project, in which you can try your hand in construction or food service or another blue-collar industry. The point isn’t to promote some stupid cosplay version of these livelihoods, but grant a real taste of what day-to-day life is like for farmers, artisans and craftsmen. Maybe this program could help bring volunteerism back into the forefront of American mainstream life, with people coming together to fix roads, help build homes and assist small businesses. Perhaps it would reconnect us to different classes and people, letting us gain more empathy for those who do this labor full-time. And maybe forcing everyone to take a summer to volunteer and do manual labor actually would convince someone that they need to dramatically shift their life priorities and start working with their hands (and/or move out to the countryside). Maybe it would allow more of us to question the value of higher-education degrees, and avoid the useless debt so many college graduates are trapped in.

I know what you’re thinking: To advocate for the creation of a framework in which Americans will, en masse, get a taste of hard manual labor is an even bigger daydream than wishing I ran my own cafe. But I think there’s something very legitimate about the growing disillusionment around so many white-collar jobs. In 2020, it makes more sense than ever that so many want to put their effort into a job that feels wholesome. There ought to be an outlet for that, even if it’s just one big social experiment.

No doubt, to aspire for a more “humble” life of labor is a privilege in its own way. But while the endgame should be for all of us to work less, there are compelling reasons why people want to work with their hands. Doing so might teach a valuable lesson about American life — and us, too.