Richard E. Ocejo


On his book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy

Cover Interview of July 18, 2017

The wide angle

There are three broad forces occurring in society today that in concert are leading to these jobs becoming cool.

First, how we classify taste is shifting. Consumers are questioning what makes traditionally “highbrow” products and services elite, while elevating typically “low-” and “middlebrow” ones to a higher status. They are often seeking out more “authentic” products, or products that are handmade, artisanal, “local,” tell a story, and provide an experience through their consumption. These workers all provide such products and services.

Second, many gentrifying neighborhoods in cities are resembling new versions of the “urban village” model of the industrial era. In other words, they are becoming self-contained places where incoming middle-class residents can fulfill their daily needs at community staples, like bars, liquor stores, barbershops, and butcher shops. Except, these versions offer high-end products and unique experiences aimed at young people with disposable income. They are also becoming cultural destinations for visitors from around the city, and even around the world.

Third, work today is undergoing profound changes. Today’s economy is knowledge- and technology-based, many industries and jobs are very unstable and precarious, and workers often must absorb a lot of risk from their employment and must increasingly brand themselves. Some young workers who feel disaffected by this environment are seeking out alternative career paths, such as these seemingly stable, traditional manual labor jobs. Young people today also get taught that what they pursue as a career should be personally fulfilling and meaningful, rather than merely for earning money. People pursue these jobs because they have a passion for them, and they give them an identity they are proud of.

In my career, I have focused on the relationship between culture and the economy in today’s cities, and how urbanites deal with and respond to this relationship in their everyday lives. I was examining nightlife scenes in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City when I came upon some of these high-end cocktail bars. My discovery led to an interest in the city’s cocktail community, especially the people who devoted so much of themselves to learning about and making cocktails: the bartenders. I gradually gathered more cases until I had what I felt was an illustrative set for understanding a fascinating phenomenon: traditional blue-collar jobs that had become “cool,” largely due to cultural and economic in today’s cities.

I am also a qualitative sociologist, and use ethnographic fieldwork as my primary research method. In short, I prefer to hang out with the people I study in their natural environments. My questions therefore always revolve around what I can observe people actually doing. These workplaces allowed me to both see and participate in the action.