‘Do not be ashamed of your job … the value of the work you are doing and the personal gains that come from it.’

I have seen and spoken with a lot of people who work in different kinds of jobs — maintenance, cleaning, fast food, retail, dine-in restaurants and day care. When they talked about what they did for a living, a fairly large percentage of them sheepishly confessed their job titles as if they were confessing a crime to the police.

When I asked them why they were speaking about their jobs so apologetically, they typically said something along the following lines: “Well, it’s just a fast food job. It’s not like I work at a bank or something.”

It always amazes me that people have such an easy time seeing themselves as losers for working at a place where they flip burgers, but then they automatically assume that other people are winners just because they work in prestigious looking buildings.

This reminds me of a dear friend who told me the other day about his experience as a low-wage worker trying to make ends meet. He has a tough time feeding his family and paying his bills. It’s not easy living on low wage. It’s particularly hard to support a family of three on RM12,000 a year. My friend wanted to know how someone such as myself, who understands economics better would view the challenge of the working poor.

My simple answer was that better education would go a long way towards helping the working poor in the future. But won’t we always need people to do menial tasks, my friend wondered, people to wait on tables and work as janitors and dishwashers.

Another variant of this point is the presumption that we need low-wage people willing to do those menial tasks and therefore, the entire system and our vaunted standard of living needs an army of low-wage people to support the rest of us.

That may be true, but there’s nothing inherently demeaning about those jobs. What’s demeaning or at least sad in some dimension is the idea of a 50-year-old mother or father of four doing that job and being barely able to put food on the table for the two kids. What’s sad is doing a job like that for 60 years with no change in what you do or your pay. That phenomenon will disappear as we get more productive due to better education.

You can see it happening all around us. Go into restaurants and your waiter is often a 19-year-old rather than a dignified and graceful middle-aged waiter or waitress as in a 1980s film. The service isn’t quite as good as it once was, but that’s actually the result of a rising standard of living rather than some cultural collapse of standards.

Hiring the better, older waiter is simply too expensive. The skilled waiter has too many better-paying alternatives. Customers aren’t willing to pay the prices that would entail, at least in most restaurants.

Look at the person behind the desk at the next hotel you check into. It’s usually a kid or an immigrant, a person who is using this relatively undemanding job as a stepping stone and is able to do that job adequately because of the technology that is behind the desk, a computer system that lets a high schooler or a person with imperfect English take care of everything with a few keystrokes.

I said to my friend, more importantly do not be ashamed of your job. Do not discount the value of the work you are doing and the personal gains that come from it. When you look down on menial work, it makes it easier for you to fool yourself about this kind of stuff.

In fact, there are hundreds of hard-working people at places like McDonald’s who walk around with their heads hanging low because they’re comparing themselves to some guy who wear suits, slacks and heels and who takes pictures of himself working on a laptop at a beach in Langkawi.

I don’t hate the guy who takes pictures of himself working at a beach. I hate the fact that people hate themselves because they think they need to be that guy in order to be successful and feel good about themselves.

It is true that most low-level jobs are hard and less than pleasant. As for my friend, a man who is holding down a menial job with which to support a wife and children, he is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He’s a good provider.” And that is exactly what makes it worth being proud of.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.