I was struck recently by a post at Buzzfeed featuring a collection of readers talking about the dream jobs they’d accidentally stumbled into. It included a fascinating mix of people and professions, but one of the things I noted was that many of these jobs are considered menial, worthless, transitional sorts of jobs by people in the middle classes — they are beneath us, unless we’re taking them temporarily to deal with monetary shortfalls. Yet, people spoke enthusiastically and passionately about their work.
I read a sense of superiority from people who sneer at career baristas or people who spend their entire lives working for the same grocery store or another service business. People who choose those kinds of professions are written off as lazy, stupid, and unambitious, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Some people genuinely enjoy what they do and they want to keep doing it. Some of those people are also aware that their work is less stressful than the high value careers they’re supposed to aspire to, that they can actually live and enjoy their lives while also having fun at work.
People talk about how jobs that involve professional school and advanced training are ‘better’ (and many are certainly better paid, though not always), but are they? We’re taught as a collective society to pursue the capitalist brass ring, trained to believe that we should always aspire to something greater, especially if it involves social status and money. Thus, for example, we hear that doctors are better than nurses, without any real reason why — if direct patient care is your passion, you should probably go into nursing. If you like spending years in medical training, well, many nursing specialties require a significant time in school, just like doctors. If you want to provide treatment in the field in emergencies, you’d probably prefer to be a paramedic or EMT. None of these jobs is better than any other, but we create a hierarchy based on perceived social status.
I particularly loved the comment from the woman who stocks a grocery store: ‘You think it’s just opening boxes and putting things on shelves, but I’m in charge of a whole corner of my department. I do it by myself. I have men who have been doing this job for over a decade that know less than me. At this moment I’m the only female stock clerk and I hold my own (I am also stocking water from our deliveries…and I weigh just over 120 lbs).’ She’s proud of her work. She enjoys doing her work. Another reader writes about working at a deli, talking about enjoying coming into work every day and feeling valued.
These are the kinds of jobs people write off as unimportant. The daily jobs that sustain us; the people who feed us, who clean our houses, who make our office buildings look shiny and nice. We look down on them, assuming either than they’re too stupid to get ‘real jobs’ or too lazy to really try, or we assume that they’re working on moving on to other careers. But these assumptions say a great deal about the people making them, and devaluing work is also devaluing the people who do it. Progressives in particular are guilty of this, with their tendency to want to ‘save’ everyone, including from things people are perfectly happy doing, and being.
One person might hate working as a grocery store stocker, and might choose to seek other work eventually. One person might go to night college while working as a store manager during the day with the plan of getting a degree and moving on to a different career. But someone else might be really passionate about housekeeping, might really relish going to a client’s house and making a noticeable difference that improves the client’s quality of life. One person might love being a kennel employee, handling animals behind the scenes and working with veterinary staff to keep patients safe and comfortable. None of these jobs are useless, and none of them are without meaning. People aren’t required to ‘aspire to more.’ They should be allowed to love their lives.
If someone doesn’t love her life, if someone feels stifled and trapped and miserable, stuck in a career that’s not rewarding and dealing with a culture she doesn’t like, she should be empowered with the tools to leave that life. No one should be stuck in an untenable position or told she should be satisfied with what she has if she’s not. But collectively, society needs to stop trashing people for their chosen professions, no matter what they are, and it particularly needs to start respecting those who make society run. The janitors, the maids, the dishwashers, the waitresses of the world, they make our lives more enjoyable, and some of them find that work in and of itself enjoyable. They need to get more credit for that, rather than being disempowered and looked down upon by people who assume that their professions are forced upon them rather than chosen, and who conclude that given the chance, people would flee in search of something ‘better.’
‘Better’ and ‘happy’ don’t look the same for everyone. What for one person would be unbearable — working 50-60 hours a week in a busy law firm, stressing out over court appearances — might be, for another person, perfectly delightful. Labour is valuable, and so are the people who perform it.
Image: stocking the shelves, Drew Herron, Flickr