One of the more interesting things to emerge from this recession economic downturn depression has been a heightened awareness of class consciousness. I first noticed this on Slog, where they are running a series of stories written by unemployed people talking about their experiences looking for jobs and dealing with unemployment. Several people have written pretty extensively about their job searches, and included discussions of the kind of jobs they absolutely refuse to even consider.
One woman wrote that she wouldn’t work at 7-11, and when her boyfriend called her on it, she wrote about that, and the comments exploded. People jumped on her for her refusal to consider applying for a job in a convenience store, and she responded with her reflections of feeling attacked, and her rationale, and her ultimate decision to explore jobs she would ordinary pass by. And the realization that’s she’s not even qualified for some of the icky jobs she wouldn’t consider, like being a prison guard.
Mere days later, another article, in the New York Times, talked about a former executive working as a janitor. I think that the story was supposed to evoke pity for the man, because he had been brought so low, and it also reflected a change in his financial situation which forced him and his wife to make some pretty big changes to cope. The whole story was set up in such a way that it was clear that readers were supposed to respond with feelings of “thank Pete this isn’t me,” and shame on behalf of the man who used to push millions around, and now rolls a janitorial cart through the halls of empty buildings after hours.
NPR also carried a report on job transitions, profiling an animal shelter and the flood of applications it received for a kennel attendant job. The shelter’s director was talking about how great it was to have so many choices, a motivated pool of applicants to choose from, and how many of them were people she wouldn’t normally perceive as kennel attendant type people.
A lot of this seems to stem from class consciousness. Once people are employed in jobs they associate with higher social and economic classes, they are reluctant to return to their earlier roots. Competition for jobs which people associate with more class is ferocious, with armies of extremely qualified and often highly experienced people vying for these positions. And, evidently, desperation is leading some people to pursue less desirable jobs. We’re supposed to feel bad for people brought low by circumstances, but the people I feel bad for are the people who have no jobs, not the former executives cleaning toilets.
I’ve worked a pretty wide variety of jobs in my life, and I think that all of them had intrinsic merit. I was even a kennel attendant, and, yes, I scooped up poo and vaccinated kittens, and those things needed to happen, so I was glad to do them. I am glad that there are people to do those jobs, and I dislike the idea that people should feel ashamed or humiliated for working as janitors or pooper-scoopers. My busser is every bit as important as the chef, because both are needed to complete my restaurant experience. The Latina lady who sweeps floors at the post office is just as critical to its functioning as the Postmaster, and while the two may make different salaries, that doesn’t make one better than the other.
America is often touted as a society in which concerns about social and economic class are not very important, which I always find highly amusing, because this country has an extremely rigid class structure. Americans are very much taught to look down on people of a lower social class, whether it’s the executive belittling the janitor, or the rednecks deriding the Mexican family next door. There’s always someone lower than you that you can point at to make yourself feel better here in the good old US of A. America is all about social position, and jockeying to improve yours, and this economic implosion has really highlighted this.