What Fishbowl Are We Swimming In? How We Value (or Don't) an Individual's Work in America
I had an experience this week that got me thinking once again about how different types of work are, or are not, valued here in America.
I woke up Tuesday morning ready for a full day of work here at the studio. There was a lot going on. I was preparing for a meeting for the next day with one of my retailers to talk about a new line of designs and products we are launching, I had a Zoom group meeting planned with delightful hookers from all over the US and Canada from 11 to 1, I needed to start some production pillows for Beekman 1802, was ready to assemble our new, affordable rug hooking essentials kit and photograph it, and also answer a spate of emails and web messages. And there was more, as there always is.
At around 9 a.m. I looked at my phone notifications and noticed something from Airbnb. Our guests at Sunset Haven had messaged me to say that the refrigerator had quit. I called my husband at work, something I never do, to see if he had any opinion on what should be done. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not find his solution tenable or best for our guests or us in the long run, so I was left to solve the issue of obtaining a replacement on my own. Once I had come up with what I believed was the best solution, I tried to call him back to just get an opinion on the alternative. Again...calling him at work is something I truly never do, respecting his time and his position at the company.
He was in a meeting, which effectively meant, no contact. All day. Not negotiable.
For as long as I can remember, my own time has never been respected in this way, as a woman, as a creative, as a small business owner, and especially as someone who works primarily from home. But even when I worked in a corporate setting or in a busy real estate office, I would field phone calls from family members (not talking about my kids here, for whom a "drop everything" policy was, to me, a must) in the middle of a work day. Since I started working from home in 2013, it has not been unusual to still get personal phone calls in the middle of the day or people just dropping by. I know...boundaries...but would this happen to a man in an office? Would this happen if I were running an accounting service, counseling practice, or some other more conventionally important business from the Parris House?
I canceled my entire work agenda for Tuesday and went out to locate and purchase a new refrigerator for our cottage (a task made more difficult by inventory shortages related to COVID-19), keep our guests informed of what was going on, and arrange for my husband to pick it up and take it to the cottage after work. After all, I can not haul a refrigerator by myself, as much as I wish I could. I then spent Wednesday playing catch-up.
There was no way my husband was going to leave work and tend to this mini-emergency. His work matters; mine less so.
My point here is not to complain, although it probably sounds like it is. My point is that I started thinking about the larger issue of the attitudinal "fish bowl" we live in in America, the hierarchy of what work is important and what can be swept aside easily or discounted, often determined by what the work is and who is doing it. I use the analogy of a fish bowl because it's just the metaphorical water we're swimming in and have always swum in and we often don't question it. Here are just a few of the assumptions that seem to be part of our overall thinking about work in America:
- the more someone is paid the more important their work is
- "professional" jobs are more important than skilled trades, arts/crafts, "unskilled" (I hate that term) jobs, unless...
- you're a teacher in America in which case you're still considered a professional but your pay is grossly under-matched to your actual value, even at "elite" prep schools
- men's work is seen as more valuable than women's, white people's work as more valuable than people of color's (documented in wage gap data)
- work from home is not as serious, structured, or important as work "on site" (we're seeing a shift here as a result of the pandemic lockdowns, though)
- jobs in the arts and humanities are not as important as STEM jobs
- it's just "normal" for people at the top of a company hierarchy to make hundreds of times the pay of people at the bottom, some of whom are uninsured, working several jobs, and still struggling to put food on the table
- it's just "normal" that some businesses get lots of tax breaks, subsidies, and other government perqs while others don't; mostly this is related to who has the best lobbyists
- "the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder wealth"; we all learned that in business school our freshman year
How do these attitudes and assumptions affect the way we think about others and how we think about ourselves? I would not be honest if I said that I am not affected by this fish bowl of assumptions when I think about my own work. My husband makes more money than I do and has an "important" title at his workplace. He manages more people than I do. The company he works for has X number of dollars in sales vs my microbusiness. The company was deemed "essential" during the pandemic, whereas my work is "non-essential."
Actually, let's just stop right there for a moment.
COVID-19 has exposed a lot about who is or is not essential or important. Prior to the pandemic, if someone had asked people whether or not the folks who make breakfast sandwiches and coffee at Dunkin for the local cops, EMS workers, and all the rest of us were essential, most would have misguidedly laughed. Those teachers who have to hear the tiresome and grossly ignorant, "Those who can do, do, those who can't, teach" BS over and over again are now keeping parents and students alike on the rails via the endless provision of online instruction and support. And yes, my colleagues in fiber art and I discovered that our own outreach to our communities with free Zoom sessions, beautiful and useful online content, and the provision of supplies for at-home projects to fill time and alleviate isolation have made a meaningful contribution as well.
Sure, if I have a medical emergency I need a doctor, not an artist, but in day to day living, I really can't tell you that a doctor's services are any more important to me than my favorite artists are. One of my favorite songwriter/musicians is releasing a new record this week. I have it on pre-order and I know when it arrives it is going to be as important to my soul and mental health as a doctor is when I'm sick or my accountant is when my taxes are due. I value all of them and I value the person who's going to hand me my medium iced decaf macchiato with skim milk at Dunkin or the barista at Cafe Nomad who knows I like lavender London Fogs because they remind me of my visits to Nova Scotia. Back in the days when I could afford cleaning help at my home, I can tell you there was almost no service more important to me.
I am not unrealistic. I studied economics in college. I understand the concept of supply and demand and how that contributes to the pricing of goods, services, and salaries in a marketplace. I know that there is a great deal of economic complexity to this. I also know, however, that America's particular brand of runaway crony capitalism, purchased politicians, regressive taxation, and plutocracy/oligarchy has diminished to the vanishing point any real semblance of free and fair markets, including labor markets.
I would like to see the day dawn in America where my husband's position, pay grade, gender, and race didn't factor in to whether or not his work was too important for me to interrupt on Tuesday, especially knowing that an interruption at work might just be the every day experience of one of his "lower level" female staff members. I would like to see a time when parents don't worry about their kids going in to the arts for fear they won't be able to support themselves because their work isn't valued the way a hedge fund manager's is in this country. I'd like to see small business owners have the kind of voice in politics that giant corporations do, not because they could throw the same copious amounts of money at politicians but because they demand and receive representation. I would like to see everyone who puts in a forty hour week (or, often many more than that) able to have their basic needs met. I'd like to see Americans value other Americans' honest work - all work - as much as they say they do.
So, anyway, that's what a broken refrigerator got me thinking about on Tuesday, and, because I know the current market value and profit margins for my own work so well, I know about how many kits, finished pieces, classes, dozens of eggs, jars of honey, and/or magazine articles I'll have to sell to pay for it. I'm not sure any creative wants to think of their work in those harsh economic terms. I don't. I prefer to think of my work in much deeper and philosophical ways. However, until we find a better, broader, more fair and viable for everyone fish bowl, sometimes we have to.
If this post has gotten you thinking about the way we value work and compensate Americans for it, here are some suggested actions:
- tell someone how much you appreciate their work, especially if they have the kind of job that does not receive a lot of popular adulation
- respect the time of any worker, business owner, professional you interact with, no matter what the current dollar value of their work per hour
- tip a service worker extra and leave a nice note
- buy something from an independent artist/maker/writer/musician/creative
- if you can't buy, promote their work
- be so consistently in touch with your local, state, & federal representatives on issues of economic justice that they know you by name
- support non-profit organizations that work in the arts, humanities, education, social justice, and human rights fields
- support your local art gallery, theater company, newspaper, book shop, etc
- find out who really finances the campaigns of your representatives in government
I'd love to hear your additional ideas, and thank you for the work that you do.
- Elizabeth Miller