For a long time intellectual labor was valued more than manual. Since the industrialization, manual labor was challenged by machines and over time by industrial robots. Therefore, a low status of manual positions is a logical consequence, because training for, for example, digging holes or even for operating a forklift machine takes much less time than obtaining a degree which is required in order to become a doctor or a teacher. In fact, many types of manual labor do not require any special knowledge at all. For example, picking fruit and vegetables or cleaning services can be performed by practically anyone, while occupations such as engineering and managerial jobs require very specific qualifications. However, some manual jobs require a lot of physical strength and endurance. Even though it may seem that everyone is capable of performing manual labor, such jobs as at construction sites or warehouse workers require the employees to be physically strong and thus not everyone qualify for such profession. In contrast, hand embroidery does not require physical strength but it is considered a skilled work and is consequently fairly paid. Although different kinds of jobs are necessary in a society, manual labor is valued less because on the whole it requires fewer qualifications.
A general assumption about a manual worker is that he is a non-skilled or semi-skilled uneducated male employee who works outside for most part of the day breaking his back and earning a low wage. Whereas it may be true in some cases, it is often a stereotype. In his essay “Los Pobres,” Richard Rodriguez explains his surprise when he found a temporal construction job for summer and did not find a “single type of worker” there but the men who had education and practiced various hobbies such as abstract painting and football. These men enjoyed various leisure activities such as watching games of their favorite football teams or taking their families out for camping. They had enough means to go for a weekend getaway. In fact, the workers that Rodriguez had met were middle-class rather than working class and they did not look “oppressed.”
Indeed, it does not mean that if people work manually, their minds are left without any food and are thus idle. Manual and intellectual work can merge with each other. If a worker can think logically and has a quick mind, he can thus work better and more efficient. In her article “Society’s Favor for Mental Labor,” Jessie Boehm argues, “While most jobs are viewed by society as wholly manual or mental occupations, manual occupations cross over into mental occupations (and vice versa) every day” (Boehm). It is a human habit to view the world in black and white but in fact there are many grey and ambiguous areas. Many types of occupations, which are viewed primarily as manual, are in fact mixed. For example, farmers need to possess profound knowledge about crops, time of sowing and harvesting, types of soil, fertilizers and chemical reactions and other aspects of their profession. The more knowledge they have the better results they get. Other types of manual work require special skills. For example, seamstresses or embroidery jobs do not require performing any elbow grease labor but their tasks are highly skilled and meticulously executed. Therefore, their wages are usually much higher than those of a, for example, furniture mover who simply needs to be physically strong and have a strong back.
Initially believing that no single job has more value than another and manual work is as good and valuable as any other type of occupation, Rodriguez was ready to receive his pleasure from this type of work that was previously unknown to him. Therefore, he found out that fatigue and back pain could be, in a sense, ‘savored’. He did his best to fit in and at the same time to get used to the job and to have some fun. His efforts though did not put him any closer to the real workers. Due to his education he initially viewed the work differently than they did. Rodriguez writes: “For my father and uncle … such sensation were to be feared. Fatigue took a different toll on their bodies – and minds.” Knowing that it was only a temporal summer occupation for him, Rodriguez could afford to experience the unnecessary pain of the job just for the sake of some new sensations. Meanwhile, those people who work manually their whole lives treat their bodies differently and try to work as ergonomically and effectively as possible.
Despite workers being diversified, there are some groups of workers who are underpaid and find themselves in the most unfavorable positions. Usually they are immigrants or illegal workers. Rodriguez argues that the major difference between people like him and the most unprivileged workers is education, or rather a lack of it. Those middle-class workers who struck him by their ‘un-oppressed’ state exercised unconventional hobbies and a could hold a conversation on a wide variety of topics because they received formal education and had a wider outlook and thus had many interests. Rodriguez lists the advantages that his education gives him: “I could act as a public person – able to defend his interests, to unionize, to petition, to speak up – to challenge and demand.” By his education Rodriguez claims to overpass the oppression that was once exerted on working people. His education gave him the knowledge that he is worth more and gave him means to demand better working conditions from the employer if need be.
However, there are groups of workers who are underprivileged. Not having any formal education, they work for low wages and are in no position to demand better. Being able only to communicate about their bare necessities, immigrants have not only language difficulties, such as lack of skills to be involved in more lucrative jobs and lack of knowledge that is necessary to negotiate for better wages and better working conditions. As a result, such workers are hardly noticeable in the American society. They cannot attract public attention to the fact that they are being treated unfairly because they have no rights and no resources. Rodriguez says, “Their silence is more telling. They lack a public identity. They remain profoundly alien. Persons apart.” Obviously if people are paid a bare minimum that is sufficient only to survive, they will not show their best possible performance at the job. Thus, employers are not interested in keeping a stable staff and do not mind a high turnover rate of personnel because manual workers are easily substitutable.
The issue of manual and intellectual types of work can be considered from another point of view. Despite how hard the job of a manual worker is, the results of his work will benefit fewer people than results of employee person who is occupied with intellectual type of labor. For example, a moving man who works in a large warehouse or a hypermarket does create a certain value with his/her labor. The bigger is the place that this person works in, the bigger is the value of the labor that he/she performs. However, a limited number of people can benefit from the results of his/her work. Meanwhile, a scientist who develops a medical tool, or a writer who creates a bestseller, devises a product that might benefit millions of people. Even if the latter do not work physically, their intellectual work is valued much more.
In contrast to those who have a disparaging view of manual labor, there are some people who regard working with one’s hands very favorably. Religious people usually tend to appreciate the manual type of labor as it gives them more time and opportunities to contemplate while doing something useful at the same time. From Tibetan monks to Eastern Orthodox priests, many religious and spiritual leaders say that spiritual work starts with physical work. In his blogpost “Leaves and Fruit: The Spiritual Value of Manual Labor,” Dylan Pahman says, “The challenge that faces the church and society more broadly then is to appreciate the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work, to celebrate it, and to exhort us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.” Meanwhile, an accelerating pace of life makes it more difficult for lay people to savor some time musing over their important spiritual issues and to clear their heads. As for manual workers, they can indeed use their mental powers to think and learn while performing their daily duties. However, their work may often be so exhausting that they do not find it possible to think or learn while working.
Obviously, any society needs different kinds of jobs and in the nearest future there are no grounds to expect a dissipation of social classes. Therefore, there are enough people who are willing to occupy any position in any industry in the country. Given the nature of every occupation, it is logical that those jobs that demand less qualification or no skills at all are less valued and therefore they are less paid. At the same time, any job can be used to the best capacity if a person is mindful and clever. Additionally, the American society allows upward mobility and even if a person starts at the bottom, he or she can move up the social ladder and shift his occupation from manual labor to intellectual work.