Talk to the Hands

This is the second in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

People are seriously re-evaluating their lives, their work, their play. The question isn't only "What are you going to do with your time in today's virtual world?" but also "What are your jobs and activities really worth?" The old litmus tests of success -- from bonuses to gadgets to luxury cars -- are not going to mine as deeply as the inner probing I predict we'll see more of in 2011. Look for a wide swath of Americans to be questioning life's meaning -- a search for values that companies and groups will do well to embrace, too. Americans are going to be asking themselves: Which things that I do feel truly satisfying and meaningful? How can I create more value in my everyday life?

This question-based seeking comes at a time when "educated elites" have become figures of scorn for many. The Tea Party has tapped into widespread fears (and real experiences) of ordinary Americans of losing control, at the mercy of vast systems. The more abstract and inhumane those systems appear, the more Americans yearn for a simpler life, a harking back to a time when citizens were practical people who could look after themselves with their own hands.

It's a split frame, however, because even as education and technology have empowered people to feel more independent, they've also inculcated learned helplessness. How many people could fix their household appliances if it became necessary? How many would know how to grow food or tend livestock in the backyard?

I see this trend playing out from the domestic and private to the urban and collective, and from high to low ends of the economic spectrum, as a reflection of valuing practical time spent with your hands.

Urban farming as a local food concept has been active in Detroit, the District of Columbia and cities in every state in the U.S. Almost 900 community gardens in Detroit have proliferated as volunteers are given seeds and training as well as vegetables by urban garden pioneers. The same concept applies to the urban chicken -- not a fast-food chain but a food-advocacy movement that encourages you to tend a flock at home. Across the country, both where the economic blight has hit hardest and where it has been lighter, I see people engaged in ever more vigorous positive-value pursuits.

Call it back-to-the-future activism or a be-here-now mindset, solutions are in the backyard, literally. Whether it's millennials sourcing gourmet meals out of the dumpster in Brooklyn or people who earn their living at computers growing vegetables in window boxes, food and shelter in 2011 become manna for body and soul.

Furthermore, the sensibility applies to handwork once construed as a zen art. Ph.D. philosopher turned motorcycle repairman Matthew Crawford points out in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work that a lot of manual work can be intellectually challenging, physically engaging and thus satisfying and more meaningful.

"Meaningful" is a huge topic, because we're crazy about the stuff. Millions of words could be written on how connecting to a higher and deeper sense of purpose improves lives. But "meaningful" ultimately comes down to activities that satisfy, that make you feel fuller at the end rather than emptier.

Time banking is one such concept that has taken hold in at least 29 states in the U.S., as well as in countries from Canada and Chile to South Korea, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. It can mean cooking a meal from scratch and taking it to your neighbor, who then owes you a ride to the doctor or a babysitting session. And it often means volunteering your time instead of donating $10, creating songs (or paintings, or poems) rather than downloading them, sharing what you've made as a value of meaningful civic life.

Things that feel meaningful usually contradict the "quick, easy, convenient" tagline. Watch as more people share in the revelation that time, attention, care and dirty hands are often the magic ingredients that cook up life's rich, satisfying stew--and create the new question: What's in it for us?

And watch, too, as people discover that the best cure for anxiety can be the one that teaches them hands-on skills and does for the generic term "work" what the late Studs Terkel said in Working that it would do: "Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying."

I see this trend of talking to the hands manifesting in a willingness to talk about meaning in the marketplace as well as in private. Tracking the do-it-yourself sector for opportunities as far out as 2014. And extending not only to how you can allay your anxieties by learning hands-on skills but also where you can be in a community (college) of learners, as enrollment at those institutions continues to climb. Just take Texas. Everything there (including the hair) is bigger, and cosmetology has proven a recession-proof trend.

So even if that Hollywood disaster scenario were to come to pass, knowing how to work with your hands will improve your chances of survival--and of looking and feeling that you've crafted real meaning in the process.

Tomorrow: "Net Gain"