Imagine yourself in a scenario you’ve likely experienced multiple times before: you’re at a party, a meeting, or some other type of social gathering where you don’t already know everyone there. As you’re standing around the coffee pot or waiting in line for some handout, the person next to you extends their hand and says, “I’m Harold Enterprise, the CEO of Harold’s, Inc.”
How do you respond?
In most cases, you tell them your name and your occupation, or at least your title within the organization that employs you. This is a common social exchange all across what we might consider the industrialized portions of the world. We introduce ourselves with what we consider the most critical pieces of information: who we are, and what makes us valuable.
Granted, we may not always respond with something work-related. If I’m at the salon, where Kat is a dominant figure, I’m more likely to say something like, “I’m charles, Kat’s nesting partner.” Why? Because my relationship with Kat is what establishes my value in that situation. There is an unspoken yet recognized need to establish what makes us worthwhile, why someone should talk with us, or why this new person we’ve met would want to engage with us on any level.
What’s interesting is that, depending on the situation, we’re willing to sacrifice our morals, to answer with something other than the truth, if we think doing so provides a level of benefit. For instance, in my initial example, Mr. Enterprise introduces himself as the CEO of his company, a company named after himself. Whether you recognize the name of the company is irrelevant because it’s the presumed fact that he is a CEO, Chief Executive Officer, and that establishes his value.
But what if Harold is actually a self-employed contractor who cleans other people’s offices and mops floors for a living? If we saw him performing his actual duties, we might think, “Ah, he’s just the janitor. He only said he was a CEO to over-inflate his value.” Yet, in some arguments, we’re all the CEO of our own lives, so how is Harold’s false? After all, he didn’t say what Harold’s, Inc. does. As a private contractor, he could well have created a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) for tax purposes. Yet, if he had said, “Hi, I’m Harold and I’m a janitor,” that would have likely changed our perception and, perhaps most importantly, our valuation of him. Unless we’re at an event designed specifically for janitors, we’re less likely to want to strike up a conversation with the janitor than we might a CEO.
How people perceive what we do and the importance of its role in society influences how our lives are valued. This is a critical part of our identity. Studies have repeatedly shown that losing our jobs increases the risk of suicide, regardless of age, gender, or level of education. Losing our jobs is about more than losing an income, though that’s certainly important. Being unemployed strips us of a sense of identity. If Harold suddenly finds himself without any contracts, is he still a CEO? Is he anything?
If we’re going to discuss the value of life, we have to look at our relationship to work and how that influences our perceived valuation. Please note that we’re not inferring that a person doesn’t have any value outside their stated profession, that would be short-sighted and largely incorrect. But what we do for work significantly influences how we value ourselves, our place in society, and by extension, each other. Let’s take a look.
Work Has Value
One of the fundamental aspects of Western Civilization is the concept of work, that we perform a task that in some way benefits society. Ideally, we like to be paid for performing those tasks, but if push comes to shove, many of us are willing to work on things we enjoy simply because we enjoy them, or see those tasks as an extension of who we are. As a photographer, I take a lot of pictures for what is called TFP, Trade For Print. I don’t get paid for taking the pictures, nor do I pay anyone for participating in them, in exchange for having the pictures to use for promotional and/or artistic purposes. While getting paid is desirable, taking pictures for free is better than not taking pictures at all because being a photographer is an ingrained part of who I am, which makes me valuable.
However, there are several questions to be raised, such as, if work is such a fundamental and necessary part of our lives, why do we so often hate it, and why do we eagerly anticipate being away from it, whether on the weekend or vacation or retirement? Why do so many people today jump from job to job, often drastically different forms of employment, instead of doing the same thing our whole lives as previous generations did? If someone came up and offered you the ability to retire comfortably right now, never having to worry about your economic situation again, what would you do?
Sure, we might take a few weeks, maybe a couple of months off to travel, lie around the house, enjoy living life at a more leisurely pace than we do now, but soon enough most of us would become bored and begin looking for something constructive to occupy our time. We might garden, learn to knit, write a book, tutor children, or any number of things and we might even consider those activities as leisure. They’re still working. They’re performing a task to achieve a desired outcome.
Why? Why do we work even if our economic situation is such that we don’t have to?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [“meh-hall-ee cheek-sent-me-hall-yee”] has written a number of books around a concept of what he calls Flow. He uses the word as a psychological definition of that state wherein one becomes wholly immersed in what they’re doing, often with an unrecognized level of pleasure. In his initial study, he gave people pagers that beeped at random times of the day. Each person would then write down what they were doing at that moment and how they felt about that activity. The pager could go off at any time of the day, while in the shower, eating lunch, in the middle of an important meeting, or any other time.
The results of the study were interesting. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that “What was unexpected [from this experiment] is how frequently people reported flow situations at work, and how rarely in leisure.” As his research continued, it became obvious that we want to work, we want to be doing something constructive and beneficial to society and the world, at least our immediate corner of it. Any disgruntlement comes from not liking what we’re doing right now, not that we don’t want to do anything at all.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because the concept is quite similar to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is Greek for “living well.” Aristotle saw it as an end toward which man, or humans should strive. Aristotle’s entire concept for ethics centers around the idea that what you do is less important than how you do it. He rejected Socrates’ notion that some occupations are better than others (philosophers being at the top of that stack). He argued throughout three different treatises that it’s not what one does but the excellence and dedication with which one does it that makes one good, or adds value to their life. People who only did their work half-heartedly, or arrogantly, or as a means of intentionally hurting others were bad.
Either way, you want to look at it, work is something we seem designed to do. But what if we don’t excel at the work we do? What if we don’t even like the work we do? Does that make us less valuable as people? Should we change jobs or are our lives doomed to be empty and meaningless? I’ve talked about this before, but you probably weren’t paying attention. Let’s recap.
Work Is Just Work
Five years ago (my how time flies), I wrote an article on the other website titled “Stop Doing What You Love.” The premise is a response to an article by Brianna West challenging the idea that we need to love what we do. In that article, she writes,
You can choose what you love to do, simply by how you think of it and what you focus on. Everything is work. Everything is work. Everything is work. There are few jobs that are fundamentally “easier” than others, whether by virtue of manual labor or brain-power. There is only finding a job that suits you enough that the work doesn’t feel excruciating. There is only finding what you are skilled at, and then learning to be thankful.
Later in the article, she explains:
Your gifts are not random, they are a blueprint for your destiny. There’s more to your life than just what you think will make you happy. Your real talents may not stroke your ego as much, but if you apply to them the kind of higher thinking that allows you to find the purpose within them, you will be able to get up every single day and work diligently. Not because you are stoking your senses and stroking your ego, but because you are using what you have.
Under this way of thinking, what one enjoys doing is irrelevant. What matters is whether you are good at what you are doing. Now, it might appear logical that if one is good at doing a job they’d probably enjoy it, but if we consider all the options we find it differently. For example, my youngest son is very good at taking out the trash. He’s tall enough, strong enough, and sufficiently mobile to remove the trash from the can in the kitchen, place it in the dumpster outside, and place a new bag in the can. He does the job well and rarely has an issue. Does that mean he should make a career out of emptying trash? After all, he has the skills.
I’m sure he’d answer with a resounding, “NO!” and I wouldn’t blame him. Taking out the trash is just one of many skills he possesses and some of the others, such as doing advanced math in his head, are more likely to take him down a financially and emotionally rewarding path. Trash removal is not a job he values.
We all have ideas about what jobs are valuable and which ones are not. The problem is, whether we place value in every job or not, many need to be done no matter how distasteful they might be. Eyal Press has a new book called, Dirty Work, Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. In the book, Press examines the lives of drone pilots who carry out long-distance assassinations, immigrant workers doing the bloody work on slaughterhouse floors, and guards at overcrowded and underfunded prisons. Most Americans would not place a high value on any of these jobs, but they have to be done, and chances are there are a lot of people who have the basic skills necessary to perform them.
One of the aspects Press talks about in the book is that with both the “kill floor” workers and the prison guards, neither set feels as though they have more palatable choices for employment. They don’t like their jobs, and from the outside, we might make an argument that their jobs, in a more just and equitable society, wouldn’t exist. Yet, without them, the meat you buy in the grocery stores would never get there. Violent criminals would roam the streets. Terrorists would proliferate without any fear.
There are a lot of jobs many of us would rather not have to know about. Someone has to clean the sewers of debris. Someone has to dig the graves at cemeteries. Someone has to clean the blood off an operating room floor after life-saving heart surgery. These types of jobs often have low morale, low wages, and few, if any, rewards beyond the meager paycheck received. Our Western society puts little value on the work because we consider the tasks disgusting. Yet, many aspects of our society would fall apart without someone doing these jobs.
What shocks many people is that the work we do appreciate and consider important doesn’t pay much better, even if one has multiple college degrees under their belt. How we value work is messed up, and attaching human valuation to that work is one of our society’s most misguided things.
Did I Go To College For This?
All through our youth, we are told, “get good grades, go to college, and you’ll get a good job.” Unfortunately, millions of people are discovering now that those “good jobs” aren’t enough to pay the loans on the college education and still leave money for things like rent, car payments, and health insurance. While there may be social value attached to what we do, the fiscal value doesn’t match, bringing down the cumulative value of both the job and the person holding it.
The website salary.com, which provides wage advice and comparison across thousands of occupations, lists some of the surprisingly low-paying occupations, all of which require either a college degree or a considerable amount of occupational training. Jobs such as reporters, both for newspapers and local television, chemists, graphic designers, architects, and paramedics make astonishingly little compared to the importance of their work. Why?
On one hand, the capitalistic nature of Western economics values profits above human lives. The assumption is that, for almost every position, if one worker quits or dies, another can easily enough be found to do the same work, possibly for less money. Therefore, it is in the company’s best financial interest to keep wages and human valuation low so that more funds can be diverted toward profit. It’s a system that, at its core, is inhumane and unfeeling. As the demand for higher profit grows, the valuation of the persons doing the work shrinks.
Owning your own business doesn’t change the situation much. More than a few studies show that small business owners sometimes go months without paying themselves at all to keep the business afloat. Occasionally one of them gets lucky, an idea takes off, and they end up building rockets to fly them to the edge of space. For the majority, however, every day is a struggle to survive.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many discrepancies in how fragile our economic system is. Businesses that had appeared strong, especially those in the service industries, went out of business within days of having to shut down and quarantine. Was the work they did important? Yes! But the value of the work and the persons performing that work did not match the economic demands of the work. The pandemic has also shown how important overlooked people such as grocery store employees, truck drivers, hotel workers, and convenience store employees are to providing the basic things we need to live. So, why are their lives not valued more?
Attaching personal value to one’s occupation has always been fraught with danger, but as we look forward, it’s about to get a lot more complicated.
Give That Work To The Robot
On Thursday this past week, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, who likely makes a lot more money than anyone reading/listening to this post, shook up the world when he introduced the concept of Tesla Bot, a robot that he says will eliminate “dangerous, repetitive, boring tasks.” Musk added, “This, I think, will be quite profound. Essentially, in the future, physical work will be a choice. If you want to do it, you can, but you won’t need to do it.”
Immediately the Internet, particularly Twitter, hyper asphyxiated. The bot that Musk described would be able to do all the low-wage, menial tasks currently performed by what is generally referred to as “unskilled labor.” It would also do a lot of the work currently performed in the US by migrants. Farm work, crop harvesting, those nasty killing floor jobs, janitorial work, road construction, and even going to get the groceries. To some, this announcement came as a shock because Musk has been one of the loudest voices warning against the danger of AI and its potential for taking over the world. But as a costumed dancer moved awkwardly across the stage, the CEO assured his audience that they could both overpower the bot, and, if necessary, outrun it. I’m sure that puts everyone’s nightmare to rest, doesn’t it?
You should know that there are plenty of people who think that Musk’s announcement was a semi-elaborate hoax, that there’s no real bot in the works, at least not from Tesla’s labs. The consensus among real researchers is that there’s no need for a robot to look humanoid when performing repetitive tasks. Robots have been at work in car manufacturing plants for several years now. None of them can be mistaken for a human. The same applies to the robots introduced to Amazon warehouses. If anything, those bots look more like the boxes in which your vibrators and other sex toys are shipped. They do not resemble humans.
What Musk’s stunt does, though, is force us into an uncomfortable conversation of what happens to the value of humans if robots, or some other AI form, whether human-looking or not, can perform for free the same work for which we’re getting paid. And is employing robots to do these tasks anything more than a digital form of slavery?
Let’s not miss the fact that this entire scenario brings us dangerously close to the head-banging arguments over individual identity. Hume argued that individual identity can’t exist in something that changes, and humans are constantly changing. Locke believed that consciousness can be transferred from one person to another, and if we’re going to buy into his circular logic, if consciousness can be transferred at all, what’s to stop us from taking the consciousness of a person and putting it into a Tesla Bot? Yeah, there is already a streaming series with that theme. This stuff gets scary in a heartbeat. Take away the concept of individual identity and what is the difference between a bot performing a task and a human performing the same task, especially if the bot is less likely to make mistakes? In that scenario, the value of the human drops to almost nothing.
The True Value of What We Do
At the end of the day, and especially in the context of history, what we remember about a person is not how much money they made, but how what they did impacts our lives and the lives of others. Jonas Salk could have been a billionaire had he held onto the patent for the polio vaccine. He didn’t, and while he still died with more money in the bank than most of his peers, we remember him for the work itself, not what he was paid for his work.
Thomas Edison was arguably a thief, a control freak, and frequently an unpleasant person to be around. Yet, we remember him and recognize his name for any number of inventions he managed to introduce to the world, whether through his own effort or that of someone else.
The value of work is not tied to the amount of money one is paid for performing that work. Rather, the value of work is relative to what the performance of that work achieves. Slaughterhouse work, as nasty as it is, keeps meat on the tables of everyone who eats meat, and that’s a lot of people. Guarding the world’s most violent criminals has value because it keeps killers and rapists off the streets. Assassinating terrorists remotely arguably keeps entire nations from plunging into war and chaos. There is value in work that far exceeds the income they generate for the worker.
At the same time, we realize that work cannot be the only means of valuing a person. If work is all we have, then we are ultimately shallow no matter how important to society that work might be. Our value as individuals requires depth, both in terms of what we do and what we know. And there is value, at times, in not doing anything at all.
We Need Your Help
We’ve hit a snag and desperately need your help more than ever. Specifically, sending charles back to school isn’t going smoothly as his request for financial aid was declined. That means if he goes back to school, everything has to come out of his own pocket. Everything. Total cost: about $7,000 per semester at least for the first two semesters. After that, we’ll have to re-evaluate. That’s not going to happen on what little charles makes.
We’ve changed donation methods, for now, to hopefully make it a little easier and more transparent. You can pay directly through PayPal using either a credit card or your own PayPal account. With this new delay, charles’ target for starting classes is now Fall ‘22. That gives us roughly a year to come up with the funds. If you listen to these podcasts, if you enjoy what charles writes, perhaps you see the value in donating, maybe even on a monthly basis rather than trying to do a lot all at once.
We would also appreciate you helping us spread the word about these podcasts. charles puts a lot of work into each one and annoys the family to no small end when he’s recording them. Growing our audience increases the opportunity to meet our goals.
Whether you donate today or not, thank you for listening and/or reading. We appreciate you being here.