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The Diversity of Work in the Market Economy

Oil Pump Worker

My mom once told me a story about how when she was in elementary school, her teacher asked each student in the class to share what his or her parents did for a living.

“My dad is a doctor,” said one boy. “My dad works on Wall Street,” said another. When it was her turn to share, my mom said, “My dad is a carpenter. He helped to build the new neighborhood just down the street.”

Silence greeted the declaration. My mom’s pride turned to embarrassment. It was then that she realized that her father was different from everyone else’s parents. He worked with his hands.

As crazy as this story might seem, our society still thinks in these terms: some work is respectable, important, and prestigious while other jobs are mundane and meaningless.

A recent Slate article by Miya Tokumitsu said it this way: the idea that you can and should “do what you love and love what you do” leads to the following problem:

Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

Unfortunately, we tend to divide work into artificial categories (often targeting manual labor as the least respectable type of work). The fact that these false distinctions exist is a sad but real aspect of our society.

But the reality is that each of us is unique—we enjoy and excel at different professions. Each profession is honorable and important because we all need each other. Tokumitsu complains that this is unfair; allowing people like Steve Jobs to become famous while others work tirelessly behind the scenes seems to be unjust. She writes:

Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO. His food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways.

But isn’t that the point? This means that we can each do what we enjoy most, leverage our gifts and talents and choose the most practical career path. I’m no Steve Jobs, nor do I particularly want to follow his path. I’m lucky, though, because I happen to live in a market economy. Markets allow us to leverage our differences by exchanging goods and services that we can easily produce for products that are more difficult for us to produce. Adam Smith called this concept the “division of labor.” Market trade not only helps us become more efficient—it celebrates our individuality by allowing us to serve each other through our unique gifts and talents.

That Steve Jobs accumulated far more wealth than I ever will, should not be cause for resentment. Because of the incredible products that his creativity inspired, millions of people have benefitted—and that should be cause for celebration, not hard feelings.

[pullquote]     What you do is much less important than how you do it.[/pullquote]

His example, along with those who made his work possible, is proof that if we excel at our work and do it with a mind to serving others, we can change the world. What you do is much less important than how you do it.

Another great thing about living in a free and mobile opportunity society is that you can choose your profession based on factors that are important to you. You can balance the desire to have job security and a high-paying job while looking for something that you love. There may be a season in your life where you are working a job that you dislike, but you have the ability to move on or even change careers when a new opportunity comes along.

Tokumitsu divides work into two categories: unpractical but loveable and practical but unlovable. Likewise, she divides workers into two categories: elites who can afford the impractical and the rest of the workforce who must settle with drudgery in order to pay the bills.

But the reality is much more nuanced. All work is good work, but each profession has its benefits and drawbacks. Fortunately, we get the freedom to take those things into account and choose accordingly. And since we are unique individuals, none of us will take exactly the same path.

That’s a reality I can live with.