Coronavirus is Bringing Back Respect for the Dignity of Work

What the COVID-19 contagion is showing us is that there are no “junk jobs.”

A janitor works in a COVID-19 ward at Cremona Hospital on April 2, 2020, in Cremona, Italy.
A janitor works in a COVID-19 ward at Cremona Hospital on April 2, 2020, in Cremona, Italy. (photo: Photo by Marco Mantovani/Getty Images)

You can tell when an idea captures public attention, at least for a minute: it gets turned into a picture on the masthead of Google’s search page. For several days, google.com has featured hearts being tossed at people (today, sanitation workers and janitors) in recognition of their essential roles during the COVID-19 contagion.

Facebook, too, has been populated with similar sentiments, from the purely positive (“Thank you to those who serve!”) to the slightly partisan (“So, do you really still think they’re not worth $15/hour?”). I’ll take it. The important point is we’re bridging the work “respect gap.”

Oren Cass coined the concept “respect gap” in his 2019 book, The Once and Future Worker. The “respect gap” refers to two distinct, but related phenomena: working versus being idle, and the kind of work we do. Cass argues — rightly, in my judgment — that we need to recover respect for both.

Working versus being idle is a question that affects social policy, but let’s put it aside for the moment. The “respect gap” relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic relates to not whether we work but what work we do.

Cass examines the typical question, “So what do you do?” It’s not just an ice-breaker or conversation starter. It often also embodies a whole unspoken set of assumptions by which we peg that person on the basis of his reply. Once upon a time, it separated white from blue collars. Today, it often implies a hierarchy of job value, a way to situate a pecking order.

“Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping people all around them and filling roles crucial to the community. They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families. Why shouldn’t they be eager to share this information with their conversation partners?” asked Cass prophetically, a year before anybody heard of this pandemic. Why shouldn’t those workers be proud?

As I pointed out last year, even the CEO or IT manager needs a good pair of shoes. What the COVID-19 contagion is showing us is that there are no “junk jobs.”

The tendency to rank and value work is not new. The ancient Greeks engaged in it. Greek culture, mother soil of “democracy,” regarded physical work with disdain, something “unworthy” of a free person. A free person engaged in intellectual and contemplative pursuits. Since, however, said free person occasionally needed a clean toga — and physical work was beneath a free man’s “dignity” — Greek culture presupposed a slave class to do the wash.

Indeed, it was Christianity that introduced a revolution into the world of work. St. Benedict sent his monks into the fields with the motto, ora et labora (prayer and work). Pray — yes — but bake some bread (and maybe throw in some good jam), too.

Modern society engages in the same kind of job-as-class reinforcement, a prejudice shared by the political right and left. If the political right with its entrepreneurial focus lauds the “creative destruction” of capitalism (usually rarely culling the jobs of those who praise that “destruction”), the political left reinforces it by calling for “job retraining” and “universal college” for “jobs of the future,” rather than recognizing that — as we are discovering amid the COVID-19 crisis — we need and should make more things for ourselves here. The economic right explains its biases away by claiming globalization expands the market by supposedly making things cheap for those less affluent; the left ignores it because “deplorables” in “flyover country” do not represent the kinds of jobs (or constituencies) in which the left is interested.

For a moment, at least, the world seems to be recognizing that the people who work in the jobs to which, for various reasons, we did not extend as much “respect” as we should have, play vital and nontransferable social roles. That’s good.

But I fear that our appreciation of these workers is superficial and driven by the wrong motives. I fear that this appreciation comes from utilitarian motives: we need what these people are doing, we have nobody else to do it, and we are mortally afraid of doing it ourselves. The danger is that once the need and fear pass, so will the respect.

To ground this respect in something more lasting, we need to recover the still unrealized central insight in St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens John Paul made the person the focus of work. Work is essential to the human person, an expression of his dignity, a way to be creative, to be connected to others, to be socially significant.

That means recognizing that work is not just another — or even primarily — an “economic” or a “cost” factor. In the encyclical, John Paul called it “the priority of labor over capital” (no. 12). Work is not just a “price” to be calculated into a profit margin. Work exists for people.

That means that not everything has a price. It means that there are factors that have a value even if they can’t be assigned a price. This idea is well captured in the old canard: “He knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

If we simply “price” work, then in normal times we can devalue the janitor or the truck driver, deeming him replaceable. In our abnormal times, my guess is that the green eye-shaded monster who devalues his char force wouldn’t trade spots for anything with the janitor who today is cleaning up casually discarded plastic gloves in the supermarket parking lot. He’d probably also suddenly “value” the truck driver bringing in today’s shipment of toilet paper to his neighborhood supermarket a whole lot more.

If that’s the case, then — in addition to the value of the person who works — perhaps the second lesson to learn from the COVID-19 contagion is: perhaps we don’t really want to go back to yesterday’s “normal.”

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