Made in Italy? Not for much longer as artisans and craftship are disappearing. Italy has always been renowned for its artisans: they create unique masterpieces by hand, even in an age in which most products are mass-produced. But these artisans and their work –and also many others- are at risk of disappearing. It is to point out that this scenario does not only characterize Italy, but the Entire Europe and even America, in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, which led to the loss of more than 8 million jobs in the United States and of 15 million ones in Italy (according to May 2009 statistics). The unavoidable consequences of that crisis have been twofold: traditional jobs are disappearing and people have begun to carve out new ways to gain access to income, goods and services.
But let’s go deeper in these two crucial phenomena. The first one sees a set of crafts classified as “critically endangered” and that, as asserted by Heritage Craft Association, are at serious risk of no longer being practised. A report issued last year by the Association of Artisans and Small Businesses (CGIA) of Mestre showed a dramatic decline in the number of members from certain professions, leading to fears of complete extinction within the next few years. First and foremost are small shipping companies, which reduced by more than one third between 2009 and 2015, followed by knitwear factories and repairers of electronic goods, who pay the price for the convenience of buying new products rather than repairing old ones. The majority of this set of professions belongs to the handcraft sector and include the production of clay pipes, clogs (hand-carved soles), coach buildings and wagons (horse drawn vehicles), collars, devon maunds, fans, hat blocks, metal threads, parchment and vellum, pianos, saws, spade, swill baskets, and also fore edge painting, paper marbling, oak bark tanning… The importance of traditional craft skills does not only lie in the fact that they are part of our cultural heritage, but they were the main professions of millions of people that now are facing themselves in the need to exercise new jobs in order to survive. And here we are at the second phenomenon, that is evident not only in the “makerspaces,” but also in what has come to be called the “sharing economy,” which encompasses activities as diverse as car-pooling, ride-sharing, opening one’s home to strangers via Web-based services like Couchsurfing or Airbnb, sharing office space and working in community gardens and food co-ops. Like “makerspaces,” the sharing economy is refashioning work, giving people new opportunities to earn money or to have access to goods and services. People are joining “time banks,” through which members trade services like baby-sitting, carpentry or tutoring. They are selling their labor for cash on platforms like Task Rabbit and Zaarly. They are renting out their cars, homes and durable goods, from appliances to lawn mowers. They are also giving away their stuff, via Web sites like Yerdle and Freecycle, rather than throwing it away.
Technology — the driving wheel of this process — has made hundreds of new jobs available, just think about app developers, social media editors, data analysts, youtubers.. Like most economic innovations, these trends promise their share of pain. New products like the 3Doodler take away market share from established sellers. Traditional service jobs in hospitality and transportation are threatened by services like Airbnb and Uber. Postmen have largely been replaced by private couriers, while checkout assistants are gradually being substituted with self-service tills. Sites where people bid to perform tasks have the potential to create a race to the bottom, particularly in times like now, when the supply of labour in wealthy countries is abundant, and the demand is limited.
This May saw the announcement of the Radcliffe Redlist, which will document, for the first time, the state of the nations’ heritage crafts and formally identify those at risk of becoming extinct. It will be released at the end of the year and will give makers a platform to articulate the type of support they need, it will become an advocacy tool, and help connect makers with supporting organisations, along with documenting each craft’s historic significance.
But someone is warning us: “We have reached a tipping point where technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates, and if the trend continues we could face a serious crisis in the US and abroad” said Wendell Wallach, a consultant, ethicist, and scholar at the Yale University Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics. Robots, 3D printing, and other emerging technologies are all further fuelling technological unemployment and global wealth disparity. While that fear has been considered a Luddite fallacy for the past 200 years, it is now becoming a stark reality, he said.
Finally, we can but suspend judgement on the prophecy of Philip Mayer, a guru of American Journalism, according to whom the last copy of the New York Times will be printed in 2043. Journalists and newsagents be warned.