The Dignity of All Work

Neighbors in an upscale condo development were speculating about what the guy in the end-unit must do for a living to afford a sailboat, motorcycle, and camper. Curious, one strolled over and asked.

“Plumber,” came the answer.

As a society, we stratify careers as a vertical hierarchy reflecting the accumulation of wealth and power as enviable social values. Service, agriculture, and skilled trades populate the lower rungs of the metaphorical ladder of success.

And this ladder implies a value system that today ill serves both our economy and our communities, since our ongoing allegiance to it assures generational continuity at the top, thus furthering a disproportionate accumulation of wealth.

The spectrum of career and employment opportunities could be better represented on a lateral axis, implying no judgement or value structure. After all, even the wealthy need housekeepers and electricians.

But sadly, the “ladder of success” model is also reflected in our educational system. Not only have we bought into the idea that every child must have a college education, the well-heeled now vie to get their children into preschools that claim to guarantee collegiate success and rival private colleges in tuition costs – even as 1.3 trillion dollars in college debt burdens forty percent of American graduates beginning their careers.

Imagine hanging the ladder sideways – so that career guidance, breadth of educational opportunity, and compensation expectations clearly reflect and encourage the dignity of all forms of work. The nurse, carpenter, farmer, home caregiver, mechanic, and teacher are all vital to a functioning society and our educational system should mirror that reality.

As someone who was privileged to have a fine education in prep school and at UVM, I know the value of an education based in the humanities. But this need not preclude learning other work-based life skills. Such competence builds self- confidence.

In the 20th century Morrisville of my youth, some kids graduated from high school and went to work on the farm, some went to college, while others went on to the St. Johnsbury Trade School to learn the complexities of engineering and mechanics. There was no “right path,” the ladder to success had few rungs, and Vance Packard’s book “The Status Seekers” had not yet been written. Work was dignity.

It’s time to rethink our educational and compensation systems in a way that honors the dignity of all work.

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