Why craftsmanship is the future of work – and what it means for organisations and individuals

When we talk about the future of work, we often talk about artificial intelligence, automation, and even the ‘end of work’ – but rarely about crafts and human relations. However, the world of work that is now emerging is in fact in the process of reinvesting in the long-forgotten values of craftsmanship: autonomy, time management, taking responsibility for one’s work vis-à-vis clients or users, creativity…and uncertainty about the future.

The industrial model of the 20th century is falling apart. Its strength lay in the scientific organisation of work (Taylorism’s one-best-way) and in the workforce. In exchange for the division of labour and subordination, employees could expect certain compensations: job stability, a fixed income, easier access to housing thanks to a salary slip and social protection, collective bargaining, paid leave, a promise of future enrichment. It was what I call the ‘labour contract’.

The alienation that was characteristic of industrial labour was only acceptable in exchange for these compensations. The work was, in fact, not very fulfilling. Industrial alienation was accompanied by greater dependence on the employer, because the repetitive tasks that make up the daily life of skilled workers are not ‘transferable’.

But the advantages of the labour contract made this intellectual poverty acceptable on balance. The security provided by the labour contract could make alienation acceptable.

Today, the industrial organisation model is still omnipresent in many organisations. Hyper-specialisation, fixed working hours and subordination remain the norm. But job security is disappearing. And little by little, other elements of the range of advantages mentioned above are being undermined. Collective bargaining has weakened along with the unions. Access to housing is limited by rising property prices in major cities. Social protection is crumbling. Self-employed workers have practically no paid holidays, unlike employees.

As a result, more workers are questioning the division of labour and subordination. Why subject yourself to this alienation without the security that went with it? The ‘existential crisis’ and the rejection of ‘mindless jobs’ are a reflection of these doubts. In addition, while machines transform certain trades and allow the automation of repetitive and routine tasks, human work has further reasons to look to the values of craftsmanship.

The return of craftsmanship

I don’t define crafts primarily as a sector or a series of manual trades – baker, cheese maker, carpenter, or cabinetmaker – although these trades are often good examples of the craft model. No, craftsmanship is first of all a form of work organisation which is defined in opposition to the industrial model – this outdated model where workers must be interchangeable, products standardised for more reliability, and where there is a one-best-way that can be replicated on a large scale to mass produce goods or services.

For something to be described as a craft, first of all the workers concerned must have autonomy, they must also have a relative mastery of their tools, manage their own working time, be responsible for the result of their work to their customers (or users), exist as distinct individuals (or a company), exercise a measure of creativity in their work and find a form of dignity in it. We could speak thus of a ‘work contract’.

In other words, the crafts are the exact opposite of the world of division of labour and subordination.

By this definition, someone can be a ‘craftsperson’ when they are a writer, computer developer, doctor, cabinet maker, plumber, but also a cleaner or domestic worker, provided that they do their work under the craft-like conditions stated above. There are several reasons to believe that these working conditions are set to dominate the future of work (and that we have everything to gain from it).

Here are four slight signals and trends that could lead us to think this:

1. The fashion for new crafts and the discourse around the new aspirations of workers are omnipresent. The number of neo-craftspeople is probably increasing more slowly than the number of books, programmes or articles devoted to them. It remains difficult to distinguish the ‘neos’ from the ‘old”]’ craftsmen, and it is not a question here of bringing quantified arguments, but rather of examining what the fascination which it exerts on us tells us about our aspirations. It fascinates us because many workers would like to unite what industrial organisation had divided: thought and execution, head and hands. We would like to be our whole self at work, to put our heart into our work, to take the time to do well, to be creative. After all, we can leave everything that is repetitive and interchangeable to robots and software.

2. Self-employment is becoming a desirable alternative for the ‘creative, especially the young. In IT, design, marketing and consulting, you more often become a freelancer immediately after graduating, or after a first experience as an employee. There is a rapid increase in qualified freelancers in the digital economy. Some can find themselves in a position of strength, with particular skills, and can organise their work outside the subordinate role of wage earners.

3. Local services based on human relations represent the bulk of the jobs of the future. Already today, hundreds of thousands of nurses, teachers, domestic workers and carers are now sought after. The ageing of the population and environmental challenges (e.g. the need keep our travel to short distances) suggest that the need for local services will be even greater in 20 or 30 years. Admittedly, we did seek to replicate the industrial organisation of work in the world of local services (in household services, for example), but these services do not fit well with the productionist model. They generate much more value when done in a craft-like setting, as illustrated by the Dutch company Buurtzorg, which provides ‘personalised’ nursing care.

4. The rise of telework and the new use of collaborative tools have transformed our relationship with the workspace and undermine the ‘presenteeism’ inherited from the last century’s model of factory work. In France, teleworking is now practiced by about a third of employees in the private sector. The rise in the cost of office rent, new tools and the higher expectations of employees in terms of flexibility have finally overcome the reluctance of managers. Asynchronous work has become commonplace. We have to learn to be more interested in the result of the work than in the time spent doing it.

What this means for businesses and individuals

The first consequence of the anticipated demise of the labour contract is a recruitment crisis, which many organisations seem to be facing. Some fail to recruit engineers, others technicians. Public services can no longer find enough carers and teachers, because the proposed contract is often a downgraded version of the labour contract. To become attractive again, this contract will have to be re-imagined: either with more flexibility and autonomy, or with better pay and better social protection, or with access to housing. Because often, these jobs no longer offer sufficient remuneration to afford decent accommodation where one works (in big cities, in particular). Especially, and more significantly, in the service sector.

To thrive in this new age of craftsmanship, management must also transform. We can already see that an increasing share of human resources are external to the organisations that use them. These are all service providers, consultants, freelancers, temporary workers and users who work without being employees. They cannot be ‘managed’ like employees, and so they shift the boundaries – sometimes in the right direction – of management for all ‘human resources’ (including employees). Telework, flexibility, training and mobility are the elements that are changing the contract offered to workers.

As for individuals, their future role as craftspersons is strewn with pitfalls. Whether salaried or self-employed, it is now up to them to bring together the multiple components formerly associated with the labour contract.

They need to rethink their protection against critical life risks. They must learn to change how they work in a rapidly changing economy, to build and rebuild the networks they will need for their professional transitions. And when there are no powerful unions, they are the ones who must ensure that their purchasing power is maintained, like the US campaign Fight for $15.

The future of work seems to be characterised by increasing polarisation, with poor workers on the one hand, for whom it is still difficult to find fulfilling working conditions, and workers who can find ways to find autonomy and dignity. However, this polarisation is not inevitable. For all workers to take advantage of the new golden age of craftsmanship, new institutions will have to be invented. Social protection systems and union organisations will therefore have to reinvent themselves to serve the worker-craftspeople of tomorrow.

This story has been translated from French.