One of my new favorite podcasts, the FT’s Alphachat, recently featured an interview with Richard Ocejo, a sociologist at the City University of New York, about his new book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy. The interview piqued my interest, and I really enjoyed reading the book. Ocejo works in or shadows workers in four occupations—craft cocktail bartenders, distillers, barbers, and butchers— in an attempt to understand why middle-class, well-educated young people are taking jobs in these formerly lower-status fields. As a consumer of some of these products and services, I was also interested in his answer to this question.
Ocejo points to three changes that are driving these newly elite occupations and forms of consumption. First, consumers have different understandings of taste than they used to. Previously, it was easy to say what things were “high” culture or taste, and therefore high class (for example, fine French food). Now elites are “omnivorous”. They consume low-, middle-, and highbrow products without risking their status as elites. They still maintain definitions of what “good” products are, and oftentimes, these definitions make it so that these products remain accessible in terms of taste and price to elites only.
Second, these businesses take the place of community institutions in many urban neighborhoods. Consumers see these businesses as community oriented, even though they very rarely play the same role that preceding businesses might have played. Consumers rarely form close friendships or relationships with staff or with other customers.
Third, these occupations reflect economic changes in a new urban economy that is less dependent upon manufacturing and is more service- and knowledge-oriented than ever before. The workers in these occupations have carved out niches of high status in what are often low-status industries. Instead of simply selling a product or service, they also sell the idea behind the product or service and an opportunity to join the taste community that they workers are a part of. Importantly, these occupations are also mostly male. They give men an opportunity to practice masculinity through manual labor, while retaining high status through the detailed knowledge they must gain to be respected by their peers and customers.
Masters of Craft is a fun book to read, and I was consistently impressed at how keen an observer Ocejo is. Reading the book has made me look more carefully at businesses that I walk into and has made me more aware of workers in these types of businesses affect my own tastes.