When I was growing up, I didn’t know anybody who set out to be a butcher. Or a furniture maker, barber, or beer brewer. Of course, there were family businesses being handed down, but I personally didn’t know anyone who made a living preserving peaches or baking bread. That was something my own mother did—on occasion—but for pleasure, not for money.
No, handcrafting skills and artistries at that time seemed notable mainly for their quaintness. They were on the way out. The wooden dollhouses our grandfathers built for us couldn’t compete with plastic, battery-operated toys imported from China; the farmhouse kitchen wisdom our grandmothers doled out (Lard? Seriously?) frequently fell on deaf ears.
What's quaint is new again
Fast forward to today, when–against all odds–old-timey pursuits are back, burnished into favor by a generation that’s grown weary of all things rapid and digital. In pursuit of calm and connection, individuals are increasingly in the thrall of mindful, contemplative activities. And it’s gone way beyond the occasional heirloom pickle or bespoke rocking chair. Millennials are suddenly doing something surprising: making a living (of sorts) as butchers, bakers, and brewers.
Millennials are suddenly doing something surprising: making a living (of sorts) as butchers, bakers, and brewers.
Just like that, certain trades and occupations that ran the risk of being forgotten forever are back. And, far from being a sign of choosing the wrong path, these hands-on hobbies (okay, okay, jobs) are hip in a whole new way. How? Why? It’s a convergence of several trends, the most powerful of which is a desire to return to a more authentic, crafted life. And, in doing so, further a quest for individuality and distinction.
A longing for the simpler life
Millennials, you’ll remember, are famous for their digital smarts and non-traditional approaches to well, everything. Beleaguered by a soaring real estate market, a tumultuous job market, and the impact of new social norms and networks, they’re traveling a very different path than the generations that came before. Millennials are more apt to share things rather than buy outright. Many rent (alone or with roommates), some still live with their parents, and many don’t see home ownership–once the cornerstone of the American Dream–as remotely feasible (or desirable). Most eat out often and many delay marriage and children. This shifting, less-traditional trajectory through adulthood has changed the definition of “earning a living,” making “barber” a viable job once again.
It’s probably no accident that living such a connected (or is it disconnected?) life with smartphones in hand has engendered a longing for things made to last—things crafted mindfully, not distractedly. From a generation raised alongside incredible technological advances and rapidly shifting cultural norms comes a yearning for a leisurely, old-fashioned shave and an expertly-crafted, herb-infused cocktail.
It’s probably no accident that living such a connected (or is it disconnected?) life with smartphones in hand has engendered a longing for things made to last—things crafted mindfully, not distractedly.
But how does this look on Instagram?
Now, about that herb-infused cocktail. There’s no question that old-fashioned experiences and objects have received a 21st-century makeover. These are Millennials (and Gen Z) we’re talking about, which means there’s a made-for-Instagram feel to many of today’s prevalent pursuits—jobs and hobbies alike. A row of glittering mason jars filled with pickled vegetables, an expertly pulled macchiato perched next to a manual typewriter… while the skill may be sincere, I’m guessing it doesn’t hurt that it looks so good on a social media feed.
As noted by sociologist Richard Ocejo, author of Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal: “To attract young people with college degrees and other options in the labor market, jobs usually have an element of performance to them.” According to Ocejo, in these newly popular, old-timey careers, “workers interact closely with customers, often in a public setting where their skill and knowledge can be admired.”
Beyond the desire to be seen and validated, Millennials, and indeed, most consumers today, also want to highlight how they’re different from everyone else. There’s a yearning to set oneself apart from the mainstream. There’s a new kind of social status in not belonging… but in charting one’s own (preferably artisanal) course. These nostalgic, dare I say quaint, jobs, like the nostalgic things you can buy—polaroid camera, vintage turntable, manual typewriter—are part of a trend towards individualism and against the mainstream.
I just want to touch it
Just as old-timey jobs are a thing these days, old-timey objects are also coming back, for similar reasons. David Sax, author of Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, writes, “Surrounded by digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric. We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many of us are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.”
Sax observes that when he’s listening to a vinyl record on a turntable, he’s doing only that, not getting distracted by his computer, surfing the internet or texting with a friend. Returning to the unplugged, analog version of a pastime (music, writing, painting, conversation) allows us to simply enjoy that moment, without the all-too-familiar tug down the digital information rabbit hole.
Returning to the unplugged, analog version of a pastime (music, writing, painting, conversation) allows us to simply enjoy that moment, without the all-too-familiar tug down the digital information rabbit hole.
Certainly, the trend toward analog is enabled by consumers willing to pay more for tangible, personal experiences. Older generations, driven by nostalgia and a similar desire to slow down and connect with actual things again, appear willing to shell out big bucks for these charming goods and services. From notebooks (for, you know, writing things down by hand) to vinyl records, the truth is in the numbers. Worldwide sales of Moleskine notebooks grew sixteen percent in 2016. Record sales have risen consistently in the past decade, reaching a twenty-five year high in 2015. At People’s Barber & Shop in Oakland, California, a haircut that takes fifteen minutes can cost sixty-five dollars with a tip.
I'd rather you be a biologist, son
Depending on where you net out on the “occupation as performance” trend, the current obsession with handcrafted can feel a bit overdone. From ironic facial hair to coffee drinks that take too damn long to make, there’s an element of the current fascination with all things bespoke that makes me a bit nuts. Taken at face value, it might be one more reason to dismiss the younger generations for their boundless self-absorption and endless navel-gazing.
While an increasing number of people appear to be making a living at these old-timey jobs, I’d be lying if I said I’m cheerleading my son through middle school math with the hope he’ll end up tending bar for a living. Call me old-fashioned—or Gen X—but after a lifetime of focusing on down payments for a house and employer-matching 401(k) plans, I can’t quite wrap my head around artisanal butcher as a career goal. Especially given that the median pay for such jobs was less than $30,000 a year in 2016.
Then again, as with so many aspects of life these days, the definition of success is changing. These younger generations have gathered that money can’t buy security and greater work-life balance leads to greater happiness. And so, I do find myself rooting for these barbers and bartenders. I hope they can ride this trend right through to a financially-secure retirement. As thrilling as technology can be, I’ll always come down on the side of handmade, personal, and if it must be, slower. And if my kids find professional fulfillment (and financial independence) via an unlikely pursuit, it’s likely I’ll just be grateful they’re not still living with me.