Never forget the dignity and courage of our essential workers

Posted on May 15, 2020 in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion

Modern society has an unhealthy tendency to value people based on their income and status

One of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we’ve come to think critically about “essential” and “non-essential” work. This distinction has mattered a great deal, of course, as governments have imposed economic lockdowns over the past several weeks. Essential workers have gone to work and the rest of us have stayed home.

What has been interesting though is our definition of essentiality in a crisis has differed greatly from how our society normally thinks about it. So-called “low-skilled” jobs like grocery clerks, janitors and gas station attendants have been elevated to essential and various “high-skilled” workers have been relegated to work-from-home status or shut down entirely.

These governmental decisions have been matched by overwhelming public expressions of admiration and respect for those workers who have manned the frontlines of our hospitals, sustained our food supply, delivered our packages, and cared for those of us in need. There have been neighbourhood rallies, free meals for truckers, loaned motorhomes for essential workers to self-isolate, and daily efforts by a 82-year-old, Qualicum Beach resident to show support for health-care workers on his flag-covered golf cart. These simple yet sincere gestures are our collective way of recognizing that essential workers are risking their health and welfare to keep our country going.

It’s been one of the few redeeming aspects of this extraordinary experience. And one hopes that it’s an enduring one.

The modern economy pays significant financial returns for certain aptitudes, credentials and skills. That’s a natural consequence of economic forces such as supply and demand, productivity and human capital. A Canadian with a bachelor’s degree or higher, for instance, has median annual earnings that are nearly 50 per cent higher than someone with just a high school diploma.

But there’s nothing natural about an inequality of esteem. It reflects an unhealthy tendency in modern society to value people based on their income and status. Credentials have become a stand-in for how we measure one’s worth. It’s a perversion of the promise of the meritocracy. And the COVID-19 experience has proven how wrong this thinking is.

The truth is there’s an inherent dignity in work that is deeply egalitarian. The CEO doesn’t have more of it than the janitor. It’s not merely a measure of one’s paycheque. It comes from being needed.

Neededness, according to economist Arthur Brooks, is a core human demand for meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging. We take satisfaction from knowing that others rely on us. It’s an affirmation that irrespective of whether one’s famous or obscure, we ultimately matter. As Brooks and the Dalai Lama put it in a 2016 New York Times op-ed: “(being needed) is a natural human hunger to serve our fellow men and women.”

This insight isn’t necessarily limited to paid work. Our innate demand for neededness can be fulfilled by work but it can also find expression in parenthood, volunteerism, religion and other sources. The key here is that we share “a universal human hunger to be needed” that’s crucial to our individual well-being.

Our current crisis has powerfully shown how much we need the people carrying out both big and small roles in our economy and society. The prime minister may be doing press conferences every day but it’s the pizza delivery drivers and the LCBO workers in Lancaster, Ontario, who have had the most direct impact on my life during the lockdown. I could forgo a day or two of the former but probably not the latter.

One hopes, in particular, that a main takeaway of this whole experience is that we’re permanently reminded that work is imbued with dignity and is something to be valued

There are no doubt various public policy implications that flow from these observations. What does this mean for the minimum wage? Collective bargaining? Or the universal basic income? But the point here isn’t about policy or politics. That’s for another column. Instead it’s a cultural call for all of us to recognize that there’s ultimately no “non-essential” work. Everyone’s contribution matters — no matter how big or small.

One hopes, in particular, that a main takeaway of this whole experience is that we’re permanently reminded that work is imbued with dignity and is something to be valued. It’s important not just for the economy but for the character of the people. It’s a key a source of our individual meaning and self-worth.

Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg has suggested that when this crisis is finally over we should throw a ticker-tape parade to recognize the essential workers — from doctors to grocery cashiers — who acted heroically and helped us get through it. It’s a great idea. They stepped up when we needed them most. And we should let them know that we know it.

Sean Speer on COVID-19: Never forget the dignity and courage of our essential workers

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