Politics, Money, and the Value of Work

Politics, Money, and the Value of Work

I don’t know about you but the past two weeks have felt really surreal. I was in Prague for the presidential election and stayed up all night to watch it. As a student of politics I was fascinated by the results. As a partisan I can’t say I was happy about it.

Ever since that moment there have been dozens of articles trying to diagnose what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy? Was it sexism? Racism? Did she not connect with voters? Was she too arrogant? Was Trump a better candidate? These questions and more have been offered. There has been a constant drumbeat about how people were out of touch and this election was a rebuke of the elite and so forth.

As you can imagine I have been tracking the post-election coverage quite closely. As a student, scholar, and teacher of American political culture I want to understand what happened for my students and for myself.

Recently, I was reading an analysis that focused on coal country in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In that analysis one person’s comment stood out. That person basically said we voted for Trump because we want jobs that will bring a good middle-class lifestyle. We don’t want service jobs (e.g. fast food and the like). We want jobs that will bring us some dignity.

In that moment it hit me. Now I had already thought about this, but this little vignette confirmed something to me. Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again resonates with a lot of people, including the white-working class that have been displaced by trade and immigration. The people in these communities have a nostalgic longing for when their grandparents and parents were growing up. They want jobs where you could raise a family, take a vacation, and be able to retire like in the supposed “good ole days.”

However, here is the rub. It is not only the money they want, but the work itself. In other words, if McDonalds came into that community and offered jobs that paid 40-50k a year for flipping burgers I can almost bet my bottom dollar that many people wouldn’t take the jobs because the work isn’t fulfilling.

You see what I realized that people don’t just feel like they have been left behind because those jobs are gone, but their dignity has been stolen. They now have to find work in jobs that are considered to be less-worthy than those of the past, even if they paid as well as those previous jobs.

There isn’t value in working at McDonalds or Wal-Mart or retail or whatever. Value is found in jobs that produce something, make something, etc. At least for many workers in parts of the United States.

The question, in many respects, is not will those jobs come back. Because they won’t. I fear that those people who believe Trump will Make America Great Again by bringing back jobs in manufacturing and mining are in for a rude awakening. I mean the United States is awash in oil. It is cheaper to harness electricity from natural gas than coal. And it is cleaner. Why would any worthwhile energy company go to a dirtier and more expensive fuel? They wouldn’t. So I believe people are going to be very disappointed with Trump in this respect.

However, there is a larger problem here and this has nothing to do with Trump, but really is directed at all of us, including myself. We, in this culture, constantly demean jobs in fast-food, retail, big-box stores, etc. Even if those jobs pay well, we often say to people “what do you want to do flip burgers for the rest of your life?” Like there is something wrong with that?

We have constructed these jobs as menial in nature, that they are beneath us and the people who occupy those jobs are also beneath us.

Now I know this isn’t true of everyone, but this hits close to home for me. My mom spent the 25 years that she was working in two jobs: a busser and a housekeeper. I can’t tell you how many times people looked at my mom like she was nothing more than some untouchable peasant. I mean that is my mom and I never thought about her that way.

However, I am also guilty of constructing jobs in retail, fast-food, etc as not being truly “worthy” of my time.

Today, I did a little experiment to see what if I was saying was true. I asked my students would you rather take a job working at a fast-food joint (once you graduated from college) that paid you more money or take a lesser paying job where you worked in a cubicle and worked in an office. Overwhelmingly, my students chose the former not the latter.

The reason: the stigma of that job. They thought working in a place like McDonalds was beneath them, even though they could make more money.

I think that explains a bit of what is going on in our political system. Hillary Clinton had a plan for retraining works and the like. Retraining for jobs that may or may not exist doesn’t necessarily restore one’s dignity. It might prepare someone for the new workplace, but many don’t want a new workplace. They want what they are comfortable with. The lifestyle they grew up on. Donald Trump’s pledge to bring those jobs back was, in some respects, restoring the dignity of people who felt they have been left behind, even if those jobs aren’t coming back. Trump was tapping into our nostalgia for that era, people were buying that message, and that helped him carry the day.

The larger lesson is two-fold. First, politicians need to learn how to talk to different constituencies about work, value, and culture, particularly Democrats who seem to be a bit out of touch with union members in these rust-belt states. More importantly, WE as a nation need to start valorizing the work of what we consider menial.

Any job that a person can do that will make his/her way in the world is a good job. It doesn’t matter if it is flipping burgers or flipping houses. Yes there will be pay discrepancies. But we have to stop, including myself, thinking that someone who works as a housekeeper or server or whatever that there work isn’t as valuable as others.

And this isn’t about wages either. Because even if you pay people who work in those jobs more money society still has a stigma on those positions. They are not “worthy” of some people. That has to stop. There is dignity in ALL work. We need to start communicating that more. We need to have those conversations. I need to stop saying colloquially, “it’s better than flipping burgers.” By making such a statement I buy into the bullshit that that job is lacking dignity, which it isn’t.

All work has dignity. All work has value. I know why people don’t want some of those jobs (e.g. working as a cashier, housekeeper, etc) because we don’t assign much societal value to it. We don’t present it with dignity. That needs to change and it needs to change now.

This is not a conservative or liberal issue because we all do it. This is a cultural issue and it is high time we try to value all work no matter the wage.

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