In the last couple of election cycles, there’s been a lot of lip service given to financial inequality.
Wall Street acknowledges that the One Percent own most of everything. As a society, we offer up respect to the rich, as if money makes them somehow better than others. Historically, people have always sucked up to the rich; they are surrounded by sycophants who prop up their assumptions that they are self-made, accomplishing all their successes by themselves. In actuality, the majority of the One Percenters have inherited most of their wealth, and have been able to build on that by the contacts they have with other rich folks. And that’s fine. Industry does keep the wheels turning, providing jobs for the other Ninety-nine Percent.
What’s not fine is the inequality of respect for the Ninety-nine Percent.
No one builds wealth without the participation of the workers. Heads of companies may provide the overall vision, but it’s the person on the ground who does the actual work of building and maintaining industry: the construction workers, the janitors, the servers, the maids, the bookkeepers, all those people who go to work every day and hold things together. If the CEO leaves the building for two weeks, business goes on as usual. If the janitor leaves for two weeks, the facility falls apart. If the receptionist leaves, the rhythms of office traffic crumble into discord.
We look up to doctors, and most of them deserve the respect they receive. But so do the nurses. Doctors come in and make their pronouncements; the nurses make sure the patient is cared for, receives the right medicines and procedures, feeds and bathes them, calms their fears. Both professions require advanced learning, but how many times have you heard, “He’s a doctor, but she’s only a nurse?” Both professions are necessary to the health of the patient, but the greatest respect is given to the doctor.
A tourist economy thrives or fails on the actions of the lowest paid workers. Servers are considered interchangeable parts, easy to replace, and deserving of very little respect at all. The assumption is that anyone can serve food. This is not true. A good server must have a prodigious memory, an ability to read people’s body language, an unfailingly cheerful demeanor (often in the face of hungry, tired, cranky customers), a head for math, and boundless energy.
A cleaner has to know some chemistry. A data entry employee needs superior small-motor dexterity. A gardener must understand the complexity of natural cycles. Bartenders are often mental health therapists. Boaters generally know a lot about geology and history. A driver is responsible for the safety of human lives.
Menial labor often requires a physical stamina that would leave the boss dragging. Day in and day out, well or sick, happy or sad, carefree or burdened with worry, workers keep the infrastructure together.
Social scientists have produced studies which show that, when the basic pay is sufficient, workers will respond to respect for their skills and abilities more than they respond to a slightly higher salary. Being viewed as important to the success of the business is crucial to workers’ happiness with their jobs. Happy workers tend to produce happy customers and the business benefits. Workers who feel unappreciated for their contributions can drag down the energy and complexion of the business, and no one benefits.
It’s not all that difficult to make people feel good about their jobs. A compliment, a smile, a sincere interest in their working conditions and problems can go a long way to encourage people to give their best at whatever job they perform. Letting people know you realize their work is important to the functioning of the enterprise makes them feel valued. (Not that a living wage isn’t also a good idea.) People deserve respect for how well they do their jobs, whether or not the work itself is seen as highly skilled, which is always a judgment call made by people who think their skills are superior.
I am one of those “liberal elites” who has a college degree and white collar working conditions. But I grew up in the oil field around uneducated roughnecks, and worked at everything from waitressing to legal secretary to slimer in a fish cannery to put myself through college. I’ve seen the respect divide from both sides. And of one thing I am certain: Without the people who do what is considered “menial labor,” there is no success for anyone, rich or poor.
The next time you’re tempted to put “only” in front of any job, stop to consider the myriad abilities or knowledge or physicality that you don’t possess, welcome the fact that there are people who can do what you can’t, and spread the respect around a little bit.
Michaelene Pendleton is a retired mental health therapist who has lived in Moab on and off since 1954, and has seen the town through boom and bust. She respects her cats for their ability to keep you from being too proud of yourself.