On The Irony of the Essential Worker

The underlooked and possibly most comedic aspect that has been revealed about our economy during the COVID19 outbreak is who can truly be deemed as the specimen they call the “essential worker”. This is subjective based on who you ask. Just so I am clear, let me define my terms; I define essential workers as the ones who – despite the circumstances – are fulfilling the bare essential needs of the majority while simultaneously exposing themselves to more risk so the majority won’t have to. There are many types of these essential workers from different fields who all deserve their due and in my opinion deserve David-like statues erected of them in front of public libraries and town halls all across America. These people are saintly beings of whose efforts we are not worthy, these are those in agriculture, healthcare, to virology and everyone in between. I wanted to talk a little bit about the not so flashy, not so popular and nowhere near as educated essential worker. These are the probably pimple faced, greasy foreheaded, likely have technical knowledge on precisely nothing, and it’s not impossible they are not high school graduates, but may be GDE contenders. These same people are the ones who, while on your way home from your version of an essential job you crankily bark some unnecessarily complicated order at, and after they’ve heard your annoyance for far too long *they* are the ones who insist on letting *you* know that it is *their* pleasure to have served *you*. No matter how underhanded the graciousness may be, that’s besides the point. In order for you to enjoy the soft cushioned luxury of a quick meal without leaving your car and risking yourself to any of the possibilities of the outside world. The fact that they are likely feeding you unhealthy sludge is besides the point. They are doing a service. It’s a broad service. A service that generally almost everyone gets regularly. This is not a specialized service, such as custom walk-in closet customizer/organizer, probably more of an unnecessary service compared to the food. (This modern economy of food isn’t ideal in my opinion but it is how a majority of people eat a majority of their meals in this day and age, and people need to eat right now, however they do.) 

Let’s imagine the essential worker of 2020; a 16 year old who is still waiting on her driver’s permit to clear so she can get her actual license and drive her own self to work, until then her dad has to drop her off at the local grocer she works at after she is done taking her junior year classes which are currently being done online given the circumstances. While at the grocer she keeps shelves adequately stocked, sees that the handles of shopping carts are properly sanitized, all while loading trunks of customers’ cars for those who ordered curbside grocery pickup. Saying that anyone can do this misses the point entirely. Yes, anyone and everyone probably could do this, but is anyone and everyone doing it? Not even close. Living in quarantine and picking up the occasional grocery order I have noticed that the vast majority of the essential workers I am seeing in the food industry are still teenagers. What they are doing is deemed as more essential than whatever it is I am doing, and rightfully so. I find it funny that there is a category of essential workers that – before the COVID19  panic – were seen to be as easily replaceable. Life is funny I guess.  But an entire sect of our economy has been told (albeit indirectly) that the work they have studied to do, that they’ve crafted and slaved for, is not essential. It’s time for them to step aside and let the teenagers do the dirty work.  

This brings us to the otherside of essential, otherwise known as – with all disrespect – the non-essential workers. This babied bunch are the same ones who self appoint themselves as the ones who are actually essential, you know, the sales representatives of RV centers, call center managers and compliance experts, without whom our world and moral fabric in which we believe would decompose and rot below our very feet. What is particularly amusing is the now non-essential worker thought of themselves as very essential before, not only that but what is even more hilarious is that the now non-essential worker looked at the now essential workers as uneducated and replaceable. The essential workers have been totally and completely taken for granted until now. While the call for those willing to work went out there was an entire sect of our economy that has been told (albeit indirectly) that the work they have studied to do, that they’ve crafted and slaved for, is not essential. Lovely, isn’t it?  Enough with the games, it’s time for the white collar class to step aside and let the teenagers do what is necessary. My my, how the tables have turned. Never in my lifetime has there been a time when we can candidly see who was worth their salt when a national crisis hits. What I am starting to believe the longer this goes on and the more witnessing of the two workers I do, the more I realize that there is a fundamental difference in mindsets between these two that explains why they end up where they are. Those essential workers, the food handlers, food preparers, farmers, orchardists, harvesters, nurses and doctors and the like all stepped up; they were willing to take the risk for the rest of us. But it’s not that the non-essential worker can’t do that work, it’s not that at all. It’s simply that they don’t want to. They could have been doing this work before this whole pandemic started, they could have been essential this entire time. But they view it as below them. Hell, if dropping out of the professional class is below me then sign me up. It’s culturally too demeaning to lower one’s professional status, to trade it all for farmland. They don’t want the risk. They like the professional image. Why worry about what’s essential when someone else has it covered? The constant flow of external validation from the IV drip is far too sweet to quit. That’s the thing with non-essential workers, or as I have heard it called before “bullshit jobs”, it’s mostly just for show. It’s not for artesans, and it’s not for utilitaritarians. It’s likely for the image. Because after all, why would I want skin in the game when I get by so easily without any?! Can you blame them? Whether they would ever admit it or not, they are fine being benched in the fourth quarter. Whether they sit and warm the pine or are on the front lines of war they get paid the same, sent home to conduct Zoom conference calls from the safety of their garage-laden McMansions. It’s a difference in attitudes. 

Prodding aside, this has changed the way I look at what I want to accomplish in my own life. Yeah, “non-essential” or “bullshit jobs” are fine, they pay the bills, give you the vacation, the 401k, but what is accomplished? On a moral level? On a psychological level? Is the gospel of regulatory compliance and RV sales really the gospel that needs spreading? Or should everyone just drop out of the professional class and farm? What I consider the most honorable profession there is (more on that in the future). What happens to us as a people when the phenomenon of bullshit and “nonessential” jobs runs its course over the next 3, 4, 5 generations? There is no telling what the economy could morph into, and what will that metamorphosis mean for us socially? A job and a career choice doesn’t seem to be just a job or a career choice at this point. I am starting to learn there are a lot more factors at play, and maybe I need to be okay with what I end up doing on a philosophical level, not just doing something for money. What we end up doing now ends up justifying what our future generations end up doing. When the next pandemic hits am I going to have to sit it out and waste time from home? Or can I be seen as essential in my own tiny way? Only time will tell.

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