Human Labor Is the Newest Luxury

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // June 6, 2017

Human labor is becoming a luxury good. That’s ironic, to say the least, given the history of how we view human labor.

The march toward technology, automation, and the elimination of manufacturing imperfections has accelerated at breakneck speed over the last few decades. We have generally perceived that these advancements equal sophistication. Luxury cars are most often the first to market with features like in-dash displays, backup cameras, and auto-parking. Consumer electronics companies lead with their newest feature sets at the high end of their product offerings. And even segments of the apparel market differentiate themselves with their products that are the result of technologically advanced fabrics, cutting-edge design, and the benefits of precise manufacturing specs. All of this has led us to associate automation with precision, precision with sophistication, and ultimately sophistication with luxury.

It’s not been human labor that is associated with luxury. It’s human ingenuity that is associated with luxury. It’s ingenuity that led to the technological advancements that have allowed for precision, enhanced quality, and features that were outside the realm of possibility in the handmade world. Hence the irony.

The Desire to Be Set Apart

The desire to differentiate oneself is one of the deepest undercurrents of humanity, especially in Western culture. The products we make reflect that truth. Consumer companies spend enormous amounts of their time, effort, and money to develop products that differentiate their end users (or at least make those end users believe that their products will satisfy that longing for being special).

And there are some interesting patterns in the types of people who strive to be seen as set apart and when they are comfortable in appearing as such:

Exploratory adopters desire to be unique, so they set out to find goods or services that are not known by the mainstream. >That is followed by the early adopters who have learned of their predecessors’ discoveries and want to be associated with the exploratory adopters’ trendiness. It’s a desire to be the same as those who want to be different (again ironic).

Then come the middle­stage adopters who sit atop the bell curve of adoption trends. They are the mainstream and with them come sizeable growth opportunities for the businesses whose products they buy.

Late­stage adopters are those who have the most extreme wait-and-see attitudes of them all.

Often, the exploratory adopters and the early adopters have the means (or spend beyond their means) in order to be on the leading edge. They want the products that no one else has or can’t afford. And this is where the impression of luxury comes in. New technology, new levels of quality, and new product enhancements are inessential to the masses, but deeply desirable in the realm of luxury because of their difficulty to be obtained, which ultimately contributes to one’s sense of distinction in being one of the lucky few to be set apart.

Sophistication and Luxury

The correlation between sophistication and luxury has been steadily strengthening for a long time as technology continues its rapid evolution.

However, Western culture reached a tipping point roughly around the turn of the last century as the proliferation of information and the white noise of the internet was open to nearly everyone in every country. Globalization had become so common that even the late adopters could access nearly any product from nearly anywhere. And that’s what started to tip the exploratory adopters in a different direction.

With few uncharted waters yet to be discovered in the globalized product economy, exploratory adopters began looking locally for things made by hand rather than in a technologically enhanced, automated, manufacturing facility free from imperfections.

However, in an industry where the supply for handmade items was low, any amount of demand pushed prices into the realm of luxury. This is especially evident among products that could easily be purchased at a retail chain store for a low commoditized price, but would sell for four or five times that at a farmers market, for instance.

And so it was that the human labor behind handmade, imperfect, small-batch, analog, locally sourced, made-to-order ethos became associated with luxury. Not everyone could — or wanted to — afford locally made leather goods or handmade bow ties or small-batch coffee beans or artisan soaps or soy-based candles.

What’s the Future Look Like?

Manufacturing as we once knew it will not return to what it once was. The tides have shifted, and the momentum toward ever-increasing, technologically enhanced automation continues to build. Couple that with infusions of artificial intelligence and the need for mass unskilled labor will continue to decline.

However, this movement also creates opportunities. Some local markets have many handmade early adopters, and many markets are still in the exploratory adopters stage. That means there is still quite a bit of opportunity for makers, suppliers, and creators (aka human laborers) to fill the growing demand.

And if you want your local community, your city, or your region to flourish, then start making. Or encourage those around you to start making. There is a new future that will be made by hands.