In American society, a person’s employment is viewed as a signifier of his or her worth. There is a disdain for the unemployed and the underemployed. A significant chunk of the American population wrongfully views those on welfare as lazy and irresponsible with money. There has been resistance to the idea of raising the minimum wage because of the belief that earning very little is an important part of the process of entering the working world. The idea here is clear: working a minimum wage job is a temporary setback and you should be embarrassed if you stick around too long. If you do, then the punishment of earning a less than living wage is your fault and yours alone. You should be ashamed because your job is worthless; pull it together and get a real career.
There’s a significant flaw in this line of thinking. Putting aside the questionable morality of trying to justify paying people wages they can’t live on, it’s worth examining what these low paying jobs are. Let’s take a look at janitors first. The average yearly salary for a full time janitor is $24,850. For a four-person household, this is at the poverty line. Therefore, it follows that the janitor should get a better job, one that is significantly better than the low paying one she (we’ll make the janitor a woman for the sake of this example) has now. In a capitalist system, the hope is that the low wage forces the janitor to pull herself together, get educated, and do her best to get a higher paying job so she can achieve her dream of owning a piece of land and/or having a family.
What’s strange about this argument is that it presupposes the job of a janitor is a bad job. It’s not clear to me why that is. Surely having clean offices and schools is desirable, no? For health purposes alone, having a solid janitorial staff in a building is key. Janitors are a necessity in a functional society. Why, then, are they paid so poorly? Why is the job of a janitor viewed as a worthless one? In fact, the job is viewed so poorly that in 2012, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich suggested we could just fire all the janitors in public schools and have the kids do the mopping. There’s no insult greater than assuming Little Timmy who picks his nose all day long can easily do your job.
Do You Want Fries With That?
Fast food workers face a similar battle. There are few jobs looked down upon more than that of a fast food worker. The idea of having to ask “Do you want fries with that?” is met with revulsion, as if people who do that must be part of a lesser species. Again, this is strange. Personally, I very much value people who give me food. Eating is a significant part of my existence and I’m happy there are people around to give me a hand with the preparation. Now, yes, most fast food workers aren’t doing all the cooking, true, but they are doing some and they are doing most of the organizing. When you look at your local McDonald’s, Chipotle, or Starbucks you see a constant stream of people going in and out.
That’s a lot of orders to take and a lot of food to gather. In terms of health, fast food workers are very important if only because they can dip their balls in my French fries when I’m not looking. If someone is going to make food for me, I want them to be paid pretty well so everything stays above board. Somehow, though, this isn’t a universal feeling.
Then we have garbage collectors. By this point, I hope you’re thinking a little differently about what jobs are and are not important and therefore realize that having your steaming pile of waste removed from your house is actually really fucking important. Yet the median salary for a garbage collector is $33,660.
The amount America decides to pay its workers seems to have little correlation with how important the job is. Consider: Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University earns over $7 million to coach the men’s basketball team. While having a winning team does a lot for a college’s reputation, I daresay having hallways that are not littered with filth is also important. Yet we all know what the janitors are being given. Or, to stick with colleges, let’s take a look at how many administrative positions there are in colleges: the number of college administrators outnumbers teachers two to one. This is a mind-boggling number. The decision was made to create more administrative jobs than teaching jobs. So the schools have less quality faculty but more administration and therefore have higher tuition that does not correlate with a better education. All of a sudden it makes a lot of sense that our janitor from before has been unable to head to school and pull herself up by her bootstraps; she can’t afford to (and many of the schools aren’t that great to begin with).
I can’t just target out of proportion expenditure in colleges, though. The employment system in America has created massive amounts of unneeded jobs that exist only to keep some semblance of a capitalist society in motion. To put it simply: a lot of people in America are doing jobs that are worthless. Many of these jobs exist solely to prop up other unneeded jobs. A company with massive bureaucracy is going to need a larger human resources department and that in turn will require contracting a recruiting firm. A new building may need to be constructed, too, and there will also need to be new management to oversee all of these people who exist solely to take care of the already too large management in place. It becomes a cycle that does not end.
The Capitalist Mindset
That people are judged by their employment and salary becomes increasingly ridiculous when, upon examination, it’s clear working can be a waste of time. Even if you are willing to put up with that, there is a significant negative result of our employment structure, as well. Commuting to jobs via car has led to pollution problems. Because everyone is expected to be employed at all times, travel becomes imperative despite the fact that such travel is poisoning our planet. We don’t need to be commuting as much as we do in order to keep society functioning; we just need to do it in order to keep the capitalist structure in place.
To the capitalist mindset in America, this problem seems insurmountable. Jobs are necessary in order to keep the country progressing. This falls apart, though. As is, the current system is not working. There are too many useless jobs and many of the jobs that are needed are done by people who are underpaid and therefore under-motivated. The only justification that remains is that working is an inherently good action and everyone should have an impressive work ethic because it’s better for you as a human being. This is, frankly, a hilariously stupid position to take. Why is having a work ethic a good thing if jobs are doing nothing to benefit society? Why is working more valuable than reading or going outside or spending time with friends and family before the inevitable embrace of death?
On some level, most Americans know this. A majority of workers thinks their job blows and they get nothing out of it other than a hope that an asteroid is headed their way. Yet the myth of work ethic and the importance of having a job remains because once those beliefs are eliminated it becomes clear an entire societal overhaul is necessary. Americans would have to realize that working and income do not have to relate as closely as they currently do. The competitive atmosphere in the business environment would need to dissipate because competing for better jobs in order to haul in money has done nothing for society- one can even argue that, in general, the higher a person’s salary is, the less important their job is to the overall betterment of society (I’m taking the garbage collectors over the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch). It will take a lot for Americans to admit that having a job signifies very little about a person’s worth and that people certainly shouldn’t be forced to starve if they don’t have employment. However, the sooner Americans do realize this, the sooner they’ll stop having to work pointless careers that give them no satisfaction and inspire them only to get blackout drunk on a Friday night.
Removing the useless jobs and allowing people to survive without salaries will not mean there is no longer a need for work. But with more time and more manpower, the jobs of janitors, teachers, garbage collectors etc can be spread out. We could all have ten to twenty-hour work weeks and have some satisfaction that our work is important.
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