In this country, it’s probably fair to say we have a bit if an obsession with “real work”. And by this we’re talking about real physical work in primary industries such as mining and farming etc., and secondary industries including all types of manufacturing. This may be down to our industrial history when Great Britain was the workshop of the world during the 19th century – but it’s probably closer to the truth to say it’s buried deep within the human psyche.
But here’s the thing – it’s totally inappropriate to today’s world and the iPhone will tell us why in a moment – but it’s vital as parents that we don’t instill the same erroneous beliefs in our children’s thinking.
So let’s let the iPhone demonstrate what we’re talking about here. The back cover of an iPhone will tell you that it has been designed in California, but assembled in China. Now in the USA, the latest version of the iPhone will sell for somewhere in the region of around $700. The requisite components to buy including clever pieces of kit such as the minute flash drive and the tiny yet very high-performance camera and other components account for somewhere in the region of about $200 of this total figure.
Interestingly, the biggest supplier of these specific parts is Samsung, Apple’s main overall rival in the global smartphone market. Meanwhile, the “assembled in China” part of the overall process costs roughly $20. So the rest of the money is down to the part that says the phone is designed in California, and this, of course, tells us exactly why Apple is such an enormously cash-rich and profitable company.
But perhaps it should be telling us something a bit deeper about our own beliefs and, therefore, what we encourage our children to do as they prepare for their own lives in a world we can’t possibly imagine today.
If it’s true that in the UK (and perhaps many other countries) we have something of a manufacturing fetishism (the notion that making things and doing things are the principle and most valuable economic activities and that all other activities are somehow subordinate to this) then we need to think again.
This is based on an outdated perception that solely tangible stuff represents any kind of real wealth and that only real physical labour is real work. This may well have been true a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand years ago – which explains why the belief is so deeply held by we homo sapiens – but it simply doesn’t hold water in today’s world.
Let’s look at another example – a man’s suit. Today, you could go into a major UK supermarket chain and pick up a reasonably well- made men’s business suit for around £25. The suit will be durable, practical, and ready to put on. It will probably be a polyester blended and machine washable product that will look quite smart if it fits well and has the right accompanying accouterments.
Alternatively, you may choose to go a little further up market to a higher quality fashion retailer and pay, say, ten times as much. This suit may be, for example, Italian designed and made with a pretty high quality wool fabric.
And then again, you could pay up another factor of ten, shelling out £2,500 for a tailor-made suit from London’s Savile Row.
So as a customer, you need to make your mind up what type of suit you want and why – what you’re trying to achieve. Are you after real style or just a suit to do the basics? Because if it’s individualisation and real quality and style you’re looking for – you’ll have to pay a real premium and you’ll have to pay through the nose for that kind of personalisation.
In other words, the same principle as the iPhone holds true here; only a relatively small proportion of the value of the product is really made up of the processes of manufacturing and of assembly. Instead, by far the greater proportion of what you’re going to pay up is reflected in the initial clever design of the iPhone, and the individual style of the suit.
The same goes for many other industry sectors such as the intense pharmaceutical research that has gone into the pill you need to cure an ailment or the precision assembly of the aeroplane’s engine that will carry you quickly and safely across the ocean. It is not the metal bashing nature of putting the thing together – despite the fact that many of us remain obsessed with this aspect of working life as it’s so deeply ingrained in our psyche.
In other walks of life, though, we also cling onto the past even though that past may have been a “tertiary” or service industry – where no “real work” was involved anyway. So maybe it’s not only about our pre-historic development as a species which had to really “do” hard work, but also a love and attachment of how things used to be when we were younger – even though that may be irrelevant.
So for example, since the advent of the gambling exchange Betfair, which enables people to gamble online without a bookmaker as the site recognises that a market is a market, some people still choose to gamble with a bookmaker. Betfair also enables people to play bingo online and other games yet some people still choose to go traditional bookmakers’ shops or bingo halls in some cases. This, it is perceived, is a somehow more real or perhaps even “worthy” type of experience in some cases – but this doesn’t stop the perception being simply wrong.
The truth in today’s world is that the physical labour included in the manufacture of goods is a very cheap commodity in a world which is globalised. But the skills that enable that labour to turn ideas into products of huge sophistication and complexity aren’t. So our initial example of the iPhone is a complicated product which does indeed require manufacture, but the real value in it lies in the pure “crystallisation” of the services it provides.
But most of the unskilled jobs that are sorely needed in the more developed countries are, of necessity, found in personal services. So workers in China may be able to assemble your iPhone, but they can’t collect your trash or look after your infirm grandmother. And this is very real work in essential areas which doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
The truth of all this doesn’t stop politicians and media pundits carping on about the real value of real work in primary and secondary industries. But in a future world where all this kind of thing hots up even more, and the pace of technology arcs even faster – and maybe even robots are doing all the physical labour – the belief in some outdated work ethic won’t help our children carve out useful careers. But what will help them is an encouragement to develop expertise in areas relevant to tomorrow’s world whilst still making sure they’re always adaptable to change.
In other words, the ability to evolve with technology and to adapt to change by welcoming that change and showing an interest in it will stand our children in far better stead than an outdated belief in the real value of traditional physical work.