We’ve Deluded Ourselves Into Believing Low-Skilled Work Is Low-Skill

It’s time we addressed what real value is in our economy.

Photo by Steve Long on Unsplash

Last night I found myself scrolling through YouTube aimlessly. I do this sometimes when my brain has decided to turn off. It’s in this moment where I’m too tired to read or even fall asleep as weird as that might sound. I’m alive but not really there. To pass the time as I wait for my eyes to drift away, my hand continues to scroll. I eventually give up on watching random Vox and CNBC videos and return to my old stand by, Mad Men.

A late night pleaser of sorts for yours truly, the now classic 60s period piece gives me all the entertainment I long for and then some, but without any added work on my end as I’ve seen the series a few times over by now. Yet, in light of my fondness for Don, Peggy and crew, watching a show set 60 years ago often reveals how different our world was then and is now. The episode of choice for this night was Tomorrowland, the season 4 finale. In it, Don finds himself at a crossroads of sorts with his life. His company, Sterling Cooper Draper Price is floundering, having lost their biggest client Lucky Strike a few weeks prior. This loss has caused havoc amongst the staff and overall morale. Don is stressed and in need of comfort. He gains plenty from his young and very open secretary Megan. However, even in light of her assistance, Don has been seeing Faye, a consultant for Sterling Cooper for some time now. She’s been his rock and the obvious choice as a match longterm since his divorce from Betty. But, spoiler alert, he eventually chooses Megan and why he does has little to do with connection and more so what she offers, which is stability and comfort. Megan is great with his three children as evidenced by the family trip he takes them all on later in the episode to California. It’s during this trip where he sees Megan’s true value. Faye, for all her compatibility, lacked that one quality Don needed.

This choice of picking Megan over Faye eventually proved to be a turning point for Don and the show. It showcased, to me at least, how vital certain people are in our lives and the roles in which they play. Don’s a business man whose primary focus in life is his work. He needs the countenance of a loyal partner, someone he can lean on when things get tough. Without that, he’s lost. But what’s illuminating about this scenario is not what Don needs but what Megan offers and how that role in our society is viewed. For so long, that role of women being there for the family was seen in an inferior light. Because Dad makes all the money and Mom doesn’t, he’s seen as being the superior of the two, when in reality, what she brings to the table is of just as much importance, if not more.

In the time since this period, feminism and the roles men and women play with each other have changed dramatically. Women are prominent driving forces in the workplace. Equality isn’t fully there yet, but we’re on the way. This is fantastic for our society. But even in light of our own cultural advancements, the work that is done by mothers, nannies and all the other menial trades we so often take for granted still exists. Someone has to take out that trash or change that diaper or cut those onions. We deem this type of work and these roles as “entry level” just because anyone can do them. However, in doing so we forget that just because anyone can, doesn’t make them any less important. This pandemic has highlighted this issue mightily.

In a fantastic essay written by The Atlantic’s Annie Lowery, she takes umbrage with how we view low-skill workers and the roles they play in making our world function. This excerpt below underscores our indifference and ignorance.

From The Atlantic:

The most gutting problem with these terms is that many “low-skill jobs” held by “low-skill workers” are anything but. Many of these are difficult, physically and emotionally taxing jobs that, in fact, require employees to develop extraordinary skills, if not ones you learn at medical school or MIT. A great deal of skill is necessary to wash a lunch rush’s worth of dishes. A great deal of skill is required to change the clothes of an immobilized senior who might not want to have her clothes changed, or to wrangle a class of toddlers, or to clean up an overgrown yard at breakneck pace, or to handle five tables of drunk guys who want their wings yesterday. The kind of patience and equanimity it takes to be a good care worker? Not a skill, apparently. The kind of fortitude it takes to be a fruit picker? Not a skill either.

Who are we if our policy language demeans those skills and those workers? We are ourselves, I suppose, which is to say that the low-skill label is a social construct that at least in part reflects the structural racism and sexism endemic in our economy. We understand jobs to be low-skill because of the kinds of people who hold those jobs; we see certain skills as valuable because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; we ignore other skills because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; and we shunt workers into “low-skill” jobs due to circumstances out of their control.

Don’s life is no different than any white collar worker today. They can go about their lives knowing that all those things they take for granted are being done by undervalued low-skill workers. This is the system we’ve set up and those who benefit from it really do. But is this the world we should expect in 2021? Has this pandemic not shown us how unfair and cruel this dichotomy truly is? That we expect low-skilled and low-payed workers to continue to do their jobs because what we’ve learned is that they are the true bedrock which makes everything go and not the Don’s of the world. How is this just? It is not and that’s the problem. Don needed Megan. Our society functions because of the work of low-skilled workers. We need them. It’s time we started treating them better.

Annie ends her essay correctly in how we should address and fix this problem. Knowledge is key. The more we know, the more we can change.

All jobs could be good jobs. But only policy makers and business leaders have the skills to make that happen, not workers.

I couldn’t agree more.

Track and Food (Editor, Podcast Host) | Scout Magazine (Contributor) | Sommelier | NBA junkie and lover of a good cookie.

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