On The Dignity and Value of Work

Work does not confer dignity.

Humans are thinking beings. We need purpose, absolutely. We need something to occupy our days that we feel makes meaning of our lives and the world. That purpose does not necessarily come, though, from just any job. It’s not bound up in the holy sacrament of the W-2 or on the parchment a check is written on.

When humanity was young and lived in small villages, some villagers would hunt, and others would gather food. If you didn’t hunt or gather, maybe you helped take care of children. Maybe you told stories by the fire. Maybe you watched the weather and the movements of animals to predict problems. 

Everyone had a purpose, but that’s not the same as having a job. Running the buffalo down’s purpose was to eat, not to define yourself as a person worthy of being fed. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” is an individualist construct. If you had a broken arm, would you threaten your arm with cutting off its blood supply unless it started healing and got about the business of making itself useful? Would that even be a reasonable ask if you were unwilling to put it in a cast or sling and give it the nutrients it needed to rest and heal?

I’m sure there were lazy people in those early days, too. There were men or women who didn’t want to do much of anything. Their fate was likely loneliness, as people would share food but little else with them. They were not hungry, but they lacked purpose, which is a private hell that needs no external reinforcement.

Today, though, we tell people that work gives us purpose. It’s better to work a difficult job for low pay and currently high risk of illness than to collect a larger check at home. We ask “why should we pay people a living wage to sit at home?”

Let’s accept the premise that $600 a week in unemployment is too much money for a moment, and instead assert that minimum wage is enough for anybody. (Let’s please not do the “minimum wage is meant to motivate you” thing, I don’t really have time to deal with that particular bit of brainwashing in this post.) If minimum wage is enough, then why did Congress pick a number that happens to precisely match the living wage people are asking for? Why did they not just pay minimum wage?

What if everyone was expected to contribute, but everyone wasn’t expected to produce? I have a notion (which may already exist elsewhere) of intrinsic value and systemic value of labor. Intrinsic value of a custodial job is low; it doesn’t really produce any direct money to have someone clean a bathroom. But the systemic value is high; no one wants to imagine the world where janitors don’t exist. On the other hand, intrinsic value for a job like investment banker is high — a lot of money gets produced by what they do. Depending on how they work, though, the systemic value may actually be negative: a rapacious bank that’s buying companies and putting people out of work to maximize profit could be taking more value out of the system than it is converting to cash. 

We recognize intrinsic value but not systemic value. This is why jobs like custodian, customer support representative, and even teacher are low paying. We let someone, usually the business owner who put up the capital and took the initial risk, pocket the intrinsic value and don’t include systemic value in our calculus at all. Then we finger-wag at people for not finding sufficient dignity in work that we do not treat as dignified or important.

I’m less interested in policing how people spend 600 a week and whether they get it and more interested in understanding what we can do to mitigate the distortions produced by people amassing measurable percentages of our GDP as personal wealth, and by allowing companies that produce that kind of wealth to accrete it entirely to the owners of capital in perpetuity and not distribute it among the producers of the intrinsic and systemic value that holds it together, with an emphasis on the people making the least. 

The famous story of Gravity Payments is a primary example of what recognizing the systemic value of your team looks like. The owner, Dan Price, was a millionaire, but not fabulously wealthy. His employees worked hard, but when he talked with them, they were making difficult choices to survive on the incomes they had, while he was pocketing hundreds of thousands of additional profit as the owner of the capital, the risk taker, and the creator. He decided that the minimum wage at his company would be 70,000. For everyone. He took a massive pay cut, rented out his fancy house on AirBnB, and lived more modestly, even driving an older car for a bit. 

So what happened? Employees got healthier because they could move closer to work and had more time to exercise, and they could buy better food. They had more babies because they could afford children. Productivity went up, so the business made more money, and Price was returned after a time to much more comfortable profit levels. His employees even teamed up to buy him a Tesla out of their own funds as a gesture of thanks for the consistent support.

One beautiful epilogue: during the pandemic, he asked everyone what could be done. He cut his pay to zero and his employees agreed on their own to a large pay cut (the more you made, the larger the cut) so that no one need be fired. They got through the worst of it and he reinstated pay with back pay when things got a little better. 

I’m a business owner, and I get the kinds of risks you take to do it. You should be compensated. But there’s a point where there are diminishing returns in most businesses. If you’re making 20 million a year for yourself and you have employees making 25,000 or 30,000, distributing 5 million among a thousand people would make no real difference in your life but could make a massive difference in the lives of the thousand. It would have an incredible systemic value, as distributing a few million did for the employees of Gravity Payments.

I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, which is a place of reasonably comfortable income, though more debt than I’d like. I’m working the angles to become wealthy. I participate in the system I live in, and I don’t find that to be hypocritical. A vegetarian who only has meat sources to eat is not a hypocrite for surviving. A vegetarian who finds soil should plant a garden though, if they can find seeds to sow.

Let us find dignity in how we treat each other, the meaning we make through our creativity, in our faith and in our process of living. Let us approach our work with professionalism and the desire to do our best, but not because failure or error will render us less human or less worthy of whatever it is we think people who work deserve beyond the profit of their labor. And let us find a way to decouple survival from each of us having to run the buffalo down ourselves.

Let’s find a way to be a village again.

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