Acton Commentary

Mike Rowe and Manual Labor


Presidential candidate Mitt Romney
reads a letter from Mike Rowe.
Courtesy @Rick_Gorka

Clint Eastwood made headlines with his now famous performance with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa earlier this month, and Scarlett Johansson delivered an impassioned plea to the Democratic proceedings in Charlotte. But it was a star of the small screen that has provided the most substantive entertainment-industry contribution this election season. Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs and narrator of The Deadliest Catch from The Discovery Channel, penned an open letter to the Romney campaign highlighting what he calls a generational “change in the way Americans viewed hard work and skilled labor.”

His work on Dirty Jobs, where he is a “perpetual apprentice,” has allowed Rowe to see from the front lines of the workplace our national attitudes towards work. “Pig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fisherman, oil drillers … they all tell me the same thing over and over, again and again,” he says. “Our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce.  We are no longer impressed with cheap electricity, paved roads, and indoor plumbing. We take our infrastructure for granted, and the people who build it.”

In a similar letter addressed to President Obama in 2008, Rowe wrote that “the ranks of welders, carpenters, pipe fitters, and plumbers have been declining for years, and now, we face the bizarre reality of rising unemployment, and a shortage of skilled labor.” This is the so-called “skills gap,” where jobs that require certain abilities or know-how remain unfilled even in the face of a vast number of otherwise available workers. The jobs report released last Friday is just the latest in a long-line of indicators that the heralded recovery from the Great Recession is ambiguous at best. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the slight decline in the nation’s unemployment rate (from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent) was largely due to the numbers of people who have simply given up looking for work amidst bleak prospects. These were largely, as Chris Isidore of CNNMoney reports, young people from the ages of 16 to 24. Over 400,000 young people stopped looking for work, meaning that “the percentage of young people who are counted in the labor force fell to its lowest level since 1955.”

These numbers point to the larger crisis we face in America, a cultural attitude toward work that Rowe has elsewhere called “dysfunctional.” This shift is reflected in the attitudes toward work of younger people, often engendered by an educational system that promotes a singular vision of higher education at the expense of vocational and technical training: “I always thought there [was] something ill-fated about the promise of three million ‘shovel ready jobs’ made to a society that no longer encourages people to pick up a shovel,” says Rowe.

There are a number of causes of this complex phenomenon, but at least part of the problem of work has to do with what we think work actually is. If all work ends up being is a paycheck, a necessary evil, a drudgery that only is worthwhile insofar as it allows us to find meaning elsewhere, then it becomes easy to see why our attitudes towards manual labor and hard work suffer.

What we need to recover, and Mike Rowe’s warnings attest to this, is a view of work that celebrates it as not merely a necessary evil but rather an indispensible good. Work is, in fact, the basic form of stewardship that God has provided for human beings to serve one another and cultivate the created order. This isn’t some easy task that might be checked off a list and dispensed with, but is rather a deeply meaningful responsibility laid upon each and every human person. As Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster observe, “The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart.”

And indeed, the picture of work that we have here is not just a simple dichotomy between manual labor that ought to be disdained and mental labor that ought to be celebrated. All work has a spiritual dimension because the human person who works in whatever capacity does so as an image-bearer of God. “While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands,” write Berghoef and DeKoster, “the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.” If we derogate work with the hands, manual and skilled labor, in this way, we separate what God has put together and create a culture that disdains the hard and often dirty work of cultivating the world in service of others. The challenge that faces the church and society more broadly then is to appreciate the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work, to celebrate it, and to exhort us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.

The Bible tells us that we reap what we sow, individually as well as corporately. If we sow a culture that disdains work, then we will reap a dysfunctional society that pits class against class, labor versus management, rich against poor, strong against weak. But if we sow a culture that celebrates all kinds of work as inherently valuable, as valid and praiseworthy ways of serving others and thereby serving God, we will reap a society that promotes flourishing in its deepest and most meaningful sense.