A Question Of Hands

Humanity has changed in the last half century in a way it never has before. In his book ‘Age of Extremes’, the history of the ‘short 20th Century’, Eric Hobsbawm says the following:

“For 80 per cent of humanity the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s; or perhaps better still, they were felt to end in the 1960s.”

What Hobsbawm is referring to is possibly the greatest social revolution in history. In the second half of the 20th Century, humanity ceased to be a race defined by digging, ploughing and caring for animals. Industrialism has swept that agrarian life away dramatically. Within a 20-25 year period, the world’s peasantry all but disappeared. In Britain by 1980 just 3 in every 100 people were in agriculture (a British person was more likely to meet someone who had farmed in Bangladesh), though change here was less dramatic than most. In Japan, for example, farmers fell from 52.4% of the population in 1947 to 9% in 1985; in Spain and Portugal from both around 50% to 14.5% and 17.6% respectively; Algeria from 75% to 20%.

These are emphatic figures, suggesting that the farming population of the world practically vanished within an astonishingly short amount of time. In Britain this change was slightly less pronounced, as Britain was the first country to industrialise (the revolution arguably beginning in the second half of the 18th Century) and, like the USA, had long since had a declining agrarian population. The reasons for this change were in part to do with new machinery, agricultural chemistry, selective breeding and bio-technology. More produce was taken from the land with far less labour than before.

As a result, the urban population of the world boomed as never before. In 2010, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in cities became greater than the number living in the countryside. In 2014, 54% of the population of the world live in cities. By 2050, the UN predicts this will be 66%.

The implications of this are evidently vast and complex, and one of them is that the number of people attempting to enter white-collar work has risen exponentially. The world has seen a distinct rise in numbers in occupations that require secondary and higher education. Namely, what this means is students.

The emergence of students as an important worldwide political and economic body has occurred exclusively since 1950. The rise in student numbers is simply enormous. Pre-1945, the number of students in Britain, France and Germany combined was 150,000. That is 1/10 of 1% of their joint populations. Bearing in mind that these were three of the most industrialised nations in the world, that is an utterly miniscule fraction of people at university. And now? One statistic alone can show what change had occurred in a mere 35 years. By 1980, one could find twice the number of students in Ecuador alone.

By 1990, student numbers, even in comparatively backward countries, could be counted in millions rather than thousands. Between 1960 and 1980 student numbers in many individual countries across the world rose from anywhere between 3 and 9 times. By the turn of the millennium it was not unusual to have students making up 3% of the population of a country.

Where pre-WWII the number of people even in secondary education was negligible, now people saw higher education as the gateway to improved income and social status. In the 1970s the number of universities in the world more than doubled.

The social revolution of the 20th Century can therefore be classified as a change in the occupation of people from the land to the office. This change has happened at an utterly monstrous speed and at an entirely unprecedented level. And this change can be summarised thus: there are now more people in the world who think with a pen in their hands, rather than with their hands.

This, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest tragedies mankind has subjected itself to. The world feels that it must pass through three levels of education, pass exams and enter into the educated professions. In themselves, exams are a tragedy. What they have done is sacrifice the immense majority of human beings who think with their hands. The people who may be happiest creating, building and caring are swept into offices. And a possibly equal tragedy beside this waste of humanity is the disintegration of the family and the community. The western family has become de-nucleated, a commercial device for individuals to grow and be borne out into the market.

The material advantages of the loss of family are clear. Individuals within a family lead their own lives and pursue their own material gains, and of course this works in a way it would not were they to remain at home. Truly the story of the late 20th Century is the emergence of the individual over society, and this is something totally decided by market forces. The labour market, for instance, decides what is taught in schools. Britain is now one of the most examined societies in the world due to our apparent need for a highly educated workforce – because so few people in Britain are liable to earn a living with their hands. It is the duty of the individual to find his or her own material living, independent of family, community or, to a large extent, even friends.

What a tragedy it is when human beings abandon the very things they blatantly need for happiness: family, friends, community. And what greater tragedy still when the great majority of people mistake their spiritual needs for material needs, and rush for fame, power and wealth when in fact the human soul requires friends, freedom from oppression and rational thought to wash away anxiety.

Consider, then, how your hands are being used. Are you truly the kind of person that will be happy thinking with a pen in their hand? Or are you the kind of person who would be happy thinking with their hands?

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