This article was previously published at Hearth and Field: A Journal. An Invitation. A Quest For Real Life.

by Ryan Hanning Ph.D


A Review of Durable Trades: Family Centered Economics that Have Stood the Test of Time

By: Rory Groves


There are certain things that we know are true. They are simply intuited by reasonable people, and rarely need explanation to convince. However, lately it feels like this category of what we can call “obvious truths” is shrinking. Defending long held positions is becoming increasingly necessary, and their defense often requires equal measures of logic and emotional appeal. When it comes to the economy, people often lose sight of the very real and dare I say “obvious” fact that economics are never purely abstract. Afterall we are talking about real people, jobs, livelihood, and to a deeper extent the purpose of work, the provision for family and the cultivation of culture. These truths are highlighted, explained, and cheerfully defended in Rory Groves Durable Trades: Family Centered Economics That Have Stood the Test of Time brought to us by the good people at Front Porch Republic, including a thoughtful foreward from Allan Carlson.  A book about which Wendell Berry said “Not every book is necessary—not by a long shot—but Durable Trades is necessary.” For some of our readers Berry’s recommendation will make the review below totally superfluous. 

The word economy comes from the Greek word οικονομία (oikonomia) meaning the management of the hearth and home, and the fruits produced when managed well. The original etymology indicated the connection between work, goods, trades, family, and the home from which work came, and for which purpose work was directed. The book, which was published last year as the pandemic began to wreak havoc, has a prescient and nearly prophetic voice, as is often the case when reminding people of forgotten truths. In the author’s note, Groves summarizes his thesis saying, “While the primary research of this book was completed over a year ago, the key tenets are proving true today: resilient nations rely on resilient communities, which rely on resilient families. Historically it has been decentralized, interdependent families and communities working together that have best weathered the storm of adversity. It will be the same today.”

The first three chapters point out the problems in our current “brittle” economic systems. He examines labor statistics which reveal the average person will have seven careers in their lifetime.  He builds off previous research into the inversion of the primary economic activities with ones that are more and more removed from the natural environment. He critiques the predominant visions of work as an end in itself, the limitations of large, centralized methods of production, and the practical challenges of a complex supply chain that can be easily disrupted by things like, for example, pandemics, and container ships stuck in the Suez Canal.  Groves is honest, but not astringent, he understands how we got ourselves into this mess, and writes as a thoughtful convert, not a luddicious zealot. He assesses are current situation and asks, “is there a different way?” A way to work that builds up and contributes to the one “oikonomia,” that matters most: the home and family—or as we like to say around here, the hearth and field. And is there a way to do this that simultaneously contributes to the common good, and the full human flourishing of oneself, family, and community.

After stating the challenges, he presents the idea of “durability” highlighting that occupations/trades that are most family-centric and have had historical resiliency. In other words, he examines those trades most connected to our humanity, and the requirements for a functional and flourishing society. Surprisingly Grove’s list includes not just the trades, but the arts, and the civil services necessary for living with one another. Shepherds, farmers, brewers, and bankers as well as lawyers, professors, musicians & midwifes all find their dignity and value appreciated and quantified.  In all, he reviews 61 “Durable Trades” that historically have not only withstood the test of time, but when done well, can be built upon an adequate anthropology, and understanding that man’s work has meaning. A list of 20 durable trades are analyzed in terms of 5 dynamics that Groves scores accordingly. Historical stability – How much has the trade and industry changes over time? Resiliency – How vulnerable is the trade to disruptions in supply and demand, and replacement from automation? Family Centeredness – How much time does the trade encourage the family to spend time and work together? Income – Does the trade provide an adequate family income? Ease of Entry – How expensive and competitive is it to start a business in the trade?

Lest one think these numbers are arbitrary, Groves provides additional research from current industry stats. Lest one think that these occupations are mythical, Groves provides a small vignette of an actual business in that trade that is operational today.  

These 20 trades are followed by 41 other “honorable mentions” with brief chapters describing the work and assigning scores on the same 5 dynamics. Each chapter is complete with thoughtful descriptions and quotes both new and old that provide color and tone to the occupations that have helped build nations and empires. 

The book ends with four short chapters on the real financial value and personal vitality offered by working in the trades, the dignity of work, and what it means for a family to work together. In all, the book provides a candid, practical and hopeful resource for families who are looking for another vision of work, one that unites rather than divides the family. I have made it required reading for my teenage children and have assigned chapters to my freshman college students. Perhaps it will help them recast and re-imagine their education into what it ought to be: a preparation for future family life and a call to make a gift of oneself using their heart, mind, and hands in service to God and others.

05 / 15 / 2021
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