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.

On Specializing

Specializing isn’t a task that man has always done, it is still a relatively new concept we are still seeing unfold in front of us as we get better at it and as we continue down its path. I have been interested in this general idea of specialization lately. My journey so far of looking into this has brought me to two intellectual giants, Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry. These two have similar thoughts on the matter. These two offer a different seeing the effects and possible consequences of specialization as we know it today.

Jacques Ellul, who is best known for his critique of current social systems, had this to say in an interview: “In a society such as ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be responsible. For example; a dam has been built somewhere, and it bursts. Who is responsible for this? Geologists worked on it. They examined the terrain. Engineers drew up the construction plans. Workmen constructed it. And politicians decided that the dam had to be in that spot. Who is responsible? No one.”

I don’t think Jacques is making the claim that each of these parties that was in the building of the dam is purposefully offloading responsibility, but it is more of a bug of the current system. There doesn’t seem to be anyone with skin in the game. When no one has skin in the game how do problems get solved?

Jacques continues: “There is never anyone responsible. Anywhere. In the whole of our technological society the work is so fragmented and broken up into small pieces that no one is responsible. But no one is free either. Everyone has his own, specific task. And that’s all he has to do. Just consider, for example, that atrocious excuse, it was one of the most horrible things I have ever heard. The person in charge of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was asked during the Auschwitz trial, “but didn’t you find it horrible? All these corpses?” To which he replied, “What could I do? The capacity of the ovens was too small. I couldn’t process all those corpses. It caused many problems. I had no time to think about those people, I was busy with that technical problem of my ovens. This is a classic example of an irresponsible person. He carries out his technical task and he’s not interested in anything else.”

We are all blindly focused on the tasks we are handed. We don’t bother to learn more if we don’t have to and we aren’t all that curious about how where our specific task fits in the grand scheme of things.

This brings me to Wendell Berry who reaches a similar conclusion from a different angle. Berry is an award winning writer but if you asked him what he would prefer to be known by I imagine it would be his farming. From his book The Unsettling of America: “The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. … [but] more common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility. Even worse, a system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competencies and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say, the ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and “agri-businessmen,” the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself.  He earns money, typically, as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible.”

Institutional irresponsibility is in fashion. I don’t think this is done consciously or intentionally, but when we specialize as a culture it allows us to offshore our collective responsibility and who wants to be responsible anymore? In a time when non-specialists were irresponsible we simply fired them, hung them or they were eaten by bears. That just isn’t the case today. Cultural responsibility ducking is in folks. Institutions all around us are wheeling and dealing with no regard for what comes next. This works in the short run for these guys, but now that it has been around long enough we are seeing just how that is coming back to bite us. We are seeing this now, when we have our largest institutions leading us astray and refusing to take any responsibility for their failures and instead of apologizing and changing course they decide to double down to pathetically save face. Is this lack of responsibility at an organizational level having any impact on us mentally and psychologically? Berry goes on to talk in his book about how “…. this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world.” Is there any correlation? Or just coincidence?

I don’t know if these two have it figured out completely, but the points made certainly carry weight and certainly deserved to be thought about and played with.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

La Partenza

One of the most shocking and important things about life I have learned is that the way things are and concepts I have been learning my whole life can be undone, mixed up and pieced back together. Life and ideas can be viewed from many different perspectives, each of which have their benefits and pitfalls. What I have learned recently is that the way things are is not necessarily the way things were meant to be and the way things are might not be the best, most effective or healthiest way to achieve certain objectives, which is what I wish to investigate. This personal discovery has been been endlessly fascinating and has been a portal for me to discover other ways of thinking, believing and a source of many different lenses through which I see the world. I consider this to be of great benefit to me personally.

Over the past few years I have been toying around with many ideas, too many to keep track of, and often thought to myself that I should be recording them somehow, this will be my attempt at doing so. I am by no means an expert on any subject. I am in fact as average as average gets. With that being said I think that is an important point, I am an average person simply observing things I find helpful or interesting to me in my everyday life. I hope to learn alongside as many people as I can. Most of what I find to be a colossal discovery may be painfully obvious to legitimate experts and naturally bright people I follow and admire, this isn’t so much for them. Ideas that have come easily to others have taken me more time to grasp for whatever reason, and I feel responsible to share my point of view with others who may be in the same boat as I. What has been of benefit to me may be of benefit to others.

This may be obvious for some and mundane to most but this is my way of trying to remember what I have learned from the great minds who have come before me and hopefully spread their ideas with others who may find them useful. This is my version of the widow’s mite, my attempt to pass on what I have learned and to thank the giants on whose shoulders I have stood and who have inspired me and helped me endlessly.

It’s my aim to learn how to improve the world in which we live and in which we have such an important role in forming. I don’t wish to change minds or convert disciples to any ideology. I want to responsibly ponder mainstream and alternative concepts. I merely believe I owe the world my perspective, which may be vain and narcissistic of me. My simple goal is to ask important questions and possibly propose other ways as to how we can live more meaningful and healthier lives in these ostensibly confusing times.

Be Well – FF.