Physical Labor – A Surrogate Life Coach?

One of the first things I notice when I return to the U.S. is how few things are still done by pure manual labor.  It seems that everything is automated or done by machine.  Even the people cleaning the terminal are driving machines instead of pushing a mop or guiding a vacuum cleaner.

Cleaning the floors in a Beijing subway station.
Cleaning the floors in a Beijing subway station.

That’s great for the people who perform that work, of course, although I suspect rising wage rates and workers comp costs helped to fuel the change.  Whatever the reason, it seems that most Western labor can now be divided into four categories:  1.  Machine operators  2.  Machine builders  3.  Machine applicators  4.  HMI’s – Human Machine Interfacers

The first two are pretty self-evident.  The third group encompasses the armies of sales, marketing, financial, and management personnel who decide what machines to build and where to put them.  And the fourth are the legions of fast food counter clerks, ticket clerks, and such whose job is to act as the interface between the machines and the customers.

It’s all a bit Orwellian, of course, but I’m not in any way against the advancement of technology or its application.  After all, it’s allowing me to share my musings with you here.

There are, nonetheless, a lot of health issues that arise from this manual to machine transition that we have not fully addressed yet.  When machines prepare all of our food it seems they want to take the good stuff out of it for reasons of taste and shelf life.  And the men and women of my parents’ generation didn’t need to belong to gyms or perform air-borne yoga to stay in shape since most of them got a good workout just going to work or taking care of the household.

Work was work, giving rise to the old saying, ‘they call it work because all of the other four letter words were already taken.’  Work/rest.  Work/rest.  It was all pretty straightforward.

Migrant construction workers going home for the holiday.
Migrant construction workers going home for the holiday.

And while I am in no way nostalgic for those days; nor do I have any desire to work-harden my body so that I don’t have to climb on a treadmill every once in a while; I do, nonetheless, wonder if we haven’t lost something – besides the back-breaking work – that came with hard manual labor.

There’s a thriving market for life coaches, therapists, and counselors of every stripe today.  And while they all have a slightly different take on the recipe for happiness a lot of it seems to come down to the simple idea of appreciating what you have.

The Chinese have one thing right, I believe.  Everything is relative.  Without relativity there is no scale against which to calibrate.  Good loses all meaning without evil.   What is happy without sad?  And rich is but the norm without the poor.

In China, of course, there remains both a lot of poor people and a lot of manual labor.  The two go hand in hand.  Even the rich here do not buy dishwashing machines, for example, because they can easily employ women to clean the dishes at a very modest cost.

Moving a pile of rubble the old-fashioned way.
Moving a pile of rubble the old-fashioned way.

When my family first came to China and began looking for places to live we were, frankly, a bit frustrated with the layout of the homes we were first shown.  They were sizeable enough and generally well appointed but lacked the kind of kitchen we were accustomed to – big, open spaces where the family could gather while meals were being prepared.  Finally, however, it was explained to us that the kind of people who would be interested in this kind of home or apartment would have no interest in a finely appointed kitchen because they would surely employ a cook and would seldom step foot in the kitchen.  Why, after all, give the hired help the best room in the house?

But while some ex-patriates seem to find it easy – if not enticing – to adapt to feeling like the lord of the manor, I always found it very humbling.  I always worried that the driver might be bored while he waited for me to come out of the restaurant or that the lady who cleans our home; the ayi, as they call them here, might think me terribly inconsiderate for not offering to help out.  (To this day, we ‘clean up’ before the ayi comes.  Our Chinese friends would surely laugh at the ayi’s good fortune.

In general, the streets of China are cleaned by hand, by thousands of street cleaners with handmade brooms.
The streets of China are cleaned largely by hand, by thousands of street cleaners with handmade brooms.


And while I ultimately conceded that I was viewing things through my personal lens, not theirs, I still find the constant exposure to manual labor, sometimes extremely hard and back-breaking, to be a constant reminder of just how lucky I was to be born in a country where I had access to a good education, health care, and the kind of wage structure that drove companies to mechanize the most difficult and de-humanizing tasks.

Would, I wonder, we need quite so many life coaches and therapists and such if everyone were so visibly and routinely reminded of their similar good fortune?

And if we’re not visiting our therapists there’s a reasonable chance we’re at work receiving training on how to work more collaboratively with our fellow workers.  And while there is great merit in having a collaborative work-style I can’t help but recall that there was a time when we didn’t have to teach people the value of teamwork.  If you wanted to raise a barn or move a boulder or take in the crop you really had no choice but to engage the help of others.

A lot of hard manual labor, if you think about, relies on teamwork.  And if you don’t hold up your end, in the most literal sense, somebody often gets hurt.  Everyone, as we like to say in modern business, has ownership of the problem.

If you don't work as a team someone gets hurt - maybe you.
If you don’t work as a team someone gets hurt – maybe you.

So while I don’t go so far as to yearn for the days of hard manual labor, nor do I wish to see those engaged in it be forced to continue to toil in such conditions, I do think that we should, in a way, celebrate manual labor in a way that we seldom do.  It’s not, after all, without its merits.

And maybe, when it comes to my young daughters, I’ll take a page from my own father, who when asked by a kindly neighbor if he would like to borrow their self-propelled power mower (having witnessed my brother and I mowing our lawn with an engineless manual mower), replied, “Thank you, but no.  I have TWO power mowers already.”

I will, however, have to text them to be sure they get the message.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

The cooking area in a modest Chinese apartment.
The cooking area in a Chinese apartment.