Fast food labor: not very rewarding in money or in job satisfaction. Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Years ago, when I was waiting tables during the summers I was in college, I would get home in the wee hours after closing up at midnight or 2 a.m. and fall into bed, tired and still wired. Once I did sleep, I’d have dreams — the most literal, realistic dreams I’ve ever had. Unlike the majority of the dreams I’d experienced by then, which, like the ones I’ve heard other people describe, generally transformed the elements of daily life and recombined them in ways that made them anything from profoundly odd to unrecognizable, these table-waiting dreams were exact replicas of the job itself. Or, rather, they were like projections from the job: not reruns of what had happened that night, but something like what you’d get if a meteorologist designed models of future work-shifts based on data collected from previous ones. These dreams of work would be sometimes so intense and stressful that they’d wake me up, gasping. Even as I would realize that I was awake and had merely been dreaming, part of my brain would still tug on me to get back to my tables, to get that food out. They were dreams that caused anxiety, having been born of anxiety. In a certain sense, that work, for $2.15 an hour plus whatever the vagaries of tipping might add, was the hardest I’ve ever done.

In last Friday’s New York Times, there’s an article that reports on CEO earnings from 2018 (NYT, 5/24/2019: read it here). To no one’s surprise, the overall takeaway from the survey is that CEO salaries — Elon Musk’s most of all — continue to balloon in relation to everyone else’s. We’ve been tracking this obscenely disproportionate corporate engorgement for quite a while now, and the trend has shown no sign of changing. Evidence of its entrenchment is this news of a vaster gap than ever, even as politicians bandy about proposals to set a federal minimum wage at $15/hour (more on the current Raise the Minimum Wage Act here).

The fact that the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 for the last ten years (before that, it remained the same for the decade between 1997 and 2007 — see the full historical chart here) suggests that Americans must regard it as no big deal that employers can legally refuse to pay the lowest-earning workers at unliveable rates. Is that it? Or is it that corporate interests (which, having built palaces and temples for themselves, now speak to us from the tops, wreathed in the smoke of sacrificial fires) are applying such political pressure (in the form, of course, of money, which they have a great deal more of than the rest of us) that the needs of workers have been shoved not just to a back burner but right off the stove?

In any case, we here in the U.S. have agreed, for a time, at least, to live with a reality in which a very few people are rewarded for their work with amounts of money that the vast majority of people, who also work, would not be able to amass in a lifetime — or several. As this article in Fortune notes, “the 400 richest Americans own a greater share of wealth than the bottom 150 million.” That’s 400 people in possession of more financial worth than 150,000,000 people, in case those zeros help you envision the lopsidedness of the situation.

One way of thinking is that people would be compensated according to the value of their work. But how is “value” measured? That’s the kicker. In the current reality, perhaps value is a measure of the degree to which you can convince other people that you deserve money? Perhaps value is — sometimes directly, but sometimes inversely — a measurement of how essential the work you do is to the basic needs of civilization? If that’s so, then we value the least (in monetary terms) some of the work we depend upon the most. It looks that way to me in this document from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2018. People who work on farms, in restaurants, in construction, in delivery, in filing, in textiles, as retail clerks, in janitorial services, just to pick a few — these people make mean hourly wages in the $10-$20 range. There’s a nearly $100-per-hour gap between those workers and the physicians and surgeons who also contribute essential labor. That same gap exists between, say, farmers and top executives.

What is going on here? How can we begin to make sense of this “system” of value? It hardly deserves to be called a system, as there seems to be little that is systematic about it. A few ordering principles seem to be true, if still inconsistent:

  1. if a person does work that is largely accomplished through the exertion of body parts, it is likely to be valued little (such as driving, building, repairing, sewing, taking money, preparing food)
  2. one exception to that is professional sports, although the gap between top-paid athletes and those at the bottom is huge
  3. if a person gets an education in order to do a job, that job is likely to be valued more highly, although the range of pay for jobs that require higher education runs the gamut (for example, social workers on average make about a third of what lawyers do)
  4. the less anyone wants to do a particular job, regardless of how crucial it is to the maintenance of a functioning civilization, the less it seems to be valued
  5. the better the media (including TV shows and movies) have made a job look, the more that job seems to be valued in real money in the real world
  6. some exceptions to that are policing, firefighting, and the military, which often look heroic and serious on video, but in real life aren’t compensated that well
  7. the more a job seems to increase the visibility of the person who does it, the more we seem to value it, as, for example, in the case of heads of organizations or screen-actors
  8. by contrast, the more a job seems to benefit society primarily and leave the laborer anonymous, as in the case of sanitation workers, builders of roads, and daycare providers, the less we seem to value it.

It’s not clear to me how it is even possible to have evolved the value system that currently seems to determine how people get paid for their labor. The more I look at the numbers, the more it seems like a vast and complicated scam, a racket that a few people have run on the rest of us, who gamely entered the workforce assuming that work and pay were a fair exchange of money for time and production. That we may have been wrong about that does not make us pitiable suckers. Being taken advantage of isn’t a moral failing on the part of the victim, or it ought not be regarded as such.

By the same token, however, we’re also all responsible for how we’ve contributed to the devaluation of work in relation to what I’ll call the appearance of work. That’s not to say that all of the people who currently are compensated the most for their time are a sham, producing merely the appearance of work. It is to say that we’ve been far too susceptible to the promotion of certain types of work over others. One of these hierarchies is that which places “intellectual labor” above “manual labor.” It is and always has been wrong to rank the value of people’s time on the basis of whether we perceived their muscles or neurons to be more active.

In addition to waiting tables, I’ve worked in retail, been a tutor, been a file-clerk, taught university courses as an adjunct instructor, and taught English in a private high-school. All of those jobs were taxing. They were all difficult, in ways that are nearly impossible to compare meaningfully. And all of those jobs, measured by what they contributed to the world, were important. I’m not sure that any one of them was more important than any other, nor am I certain how that could accurately be gauged.

I don’t know why we seem to think that the work of being a mother should go uncompensated, while the work of a financial analyst should be worth, on average, $100K per year. I can’t fathom why a kindergarten teacher should make a fraction of what a full professor of engineering does. How can education at its most basic and therefore essential level be worth less than education that is also important but not necessary for living an informed and engaged life in a democracy?

Strolling down this path inevitably, I believe, leads to the most important questions: why do we even insist on comparatively, hierarchically valuing work at all? Why shouldn’t all work be of equal value? And from there, it’s not many more steps to this: what if a person can’t work? What then? Do they have no value in the world? Do they not deserve to live? How can a person who is unable to work acquire the wherewithal to survive in a society that insists that people trade work for the funds necessary to support life? Why is that person’s life worth so very much less than Elon Musk’s?

I’ve written myself into another quandary, to which I have no answers. But the questions remain worth asking, both as a defense against the degeneration of American society into a form of neo-medieval feudalism and as a preservation of the dignity of individuals, who deserve, on the basis of being alive, to consider their time and contribution to the world no less valuable than that of a person whose grand accident of birth allowed him to hit the jackpot.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.