Masters of Craft: A trip to the barbershop

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about barbering. 

OcejoOne Monday in the early afternoon a young Asian man in his late 20s sits in Miles’s chair at Freemans Sporting Club, an upscale men’s barbershop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After greeting him, Miles asks what he would like to do. The man takes out his phone and shows Miles a picture of a model he saw online.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that for you, at least not now. You’ve got that coming down [points to longer hair on the side of his head] that I’d have to gradually get rid of. It’d look good in a couple of haircuts. Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

Miles turns to get his tools in order and then starts cutting his client’s hair. He makes basic chitchat to set him at ease: Has he ever been here before? (No.) What does he do? (Lawyer.) Where does he live? (Upper East Side.) After about ten minutes, Miles gets to the side of his head. Perhaps feeling more comfortable, the client talks about his hair.

“I’ve always had problems with that side of my head.”

“Yeah, a lot of guys do,” says Miles. “It’s where your whorl is. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s this circle on the top of everyone’s head. Yours is there. It’s kind of like where hair starts [on the head]. Most guys who have cowlicks have them because either their hair is too short or it’s going in the other direction [from the whorl].”

“Oh.”

“So that could be why you’re having problems with it. Or it could be how your mom parted it for you when you were a kid, or sometimes you’re left-handed and trying to part on the other side.”

Of the four workplaces I studied, the upscale men’s barbershops are the most obvious places where we can see men performing masculinity. The barbers perform a “caring masculinity” for their clients, while clients go to these high-end shops to seek out a particular look or style to perform their own form of masculinity. Here, Miles is engaged in a “masculinity project.” He’s actively helping his client realize what kind of style would work for him, while simultaneously teaching him about why men usually get cowlicks and giving him an excuse for why he’s always had problems with his part (his mom may be responsible, or his handedness). But Miles is not just passing on knowledge of how to “do masculinity;” he is also working in a masculine-coded job that has been redefined today for a new generation of worker in service and manual labor, which is what he has in common with the people in the other jobs I studied.

Among the most vaunted jobs in today’s economy are those that require knowledge work in some form. These are jobs in high technology industries (IT, nanotechnology, biomedical research), high-end services like finance and design, and creative/cultural industries that require a large amount of human capital. Meanwhile, recent reports show that women-dominated jobs (health aides, counselors) are among the fastest-growing in today’s economy, while men-dominated jobs (manufacturing) are among the fastest-shrinking. Additionally, women have been shown to be more likely to enter male-dominated occupations, such as medical positions, than men are to enter women-dominated occupations, such as those that require caregiving and interpersonal service. In short, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for men to earn a living and achieve respect by using forms of traditional masculinity, specifically their bodies, and more pressure on them to acquire advanced degrees and/or work jobs that require them to interact with and even show empathy toward consumers.

But the jobs I studied represent alternatives to the strictly knowledge- or service-based jobs of today’s economy, and they offer their workers, who are mostly men, greater social benefits than the more common versions of these occupations. They are interesting hybrids: they allow men to use both their minds, as in the sense of style and knowledge Miles provides for his client, and their bodies, as in the technical haircutting skills Miles uses to achieve this style. Similarly, cocktail bartenders use their knowledge of mixology and skills in making cocktails, while whole-animal butchers use their knowledge of meat and artisanal butchery skills. They all must provide interpersonal service, but their interactions almost always circle back to the cultural knowledge. And they all perform their jobs for an audience of consumers in search of unique products, services, and experiences from cultural experts. These consumers validate the performances of these workers by listening to their knowledgeable advice on taste and style, and expressing their gratitude for what they’re receiving from them. Meanwhile, even though they do not regularly interact with consumers, since they aren’t part of the service industry, the craft distillers I studied also use their mind and bodies to manufacture special spirits products. Comments about what they make, directly from consumers and in the media, always refer to their products’ originality and the craftsmanship that went into them. In short, men in these jobs are able to claim a fading sense of middle class masculinity through work by performing physical labor, at the same time as they can achieve a greater amount of status by working jobs that require them to understand and communicate sets of cultural knowledge that have high cultural value in today’s city.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.