Turning Old Jobs Into New Careers

November 15, 2017

Professor Richard E. Ocejo's book about well-educated young people who are taking traditionally humble service jobs is attracting attention.

"A sociologist walks in a bar ... and discovers the soul of a new economy."

So quipped The Wall Street Journal about Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, Professor Richard E. Ocejo's (GC/John Jay, Sociology) new book about well-educated young people who are taking traditionally humble service jobs - bartending, distilling, barbering and butchering - and turning them into craft careers worthy of being considered hip.

Ocejo interviewed dozens of young New Yorkers who could have pursued 21st-century careers but were drawn to creative, high-end versions of occupations historically populated by those without options for upward mobility. To better understand the trend, Ocejo himself took an internship as a butcher at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market. In a recent interview with Kai Ryssdal of the public radio program 'Marketplace,' he described the intricate process - and emotional fulfillment - of creating an artisanal hamburger patty.

For the practitioners, Ocejo found, the new craft occupations "really reinvigorated them with this sense of meaning, this sense of craft, and this idea that the process that they were going through was going to enhance the quality and specialness of [their] products and services." He added, "I really expected to see them kind of moonlighting, doing it, say, out of some kind of hipster irony or something. These are very serious pursuits that they wanted to be doing when they could have been doing something else."

Ocejo has developed a niche applying his academic approach to books of immersive, sharply observed reporting: equal parts sociology, anthropology, economics and first-person narrative journalism. For his previous book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City, he spent years exploring the changing face of the city through the burgeoning bar scene of Lower Manhattan.

This article was adapted from CUNY Matters, fall 2017 issue.