Like the rest of you, I’ve been following the story of actor Geoffrey Owens over the last few weeks. After someone noticed him working at a Trader Joe’s – a job very different from his recurring role on “The Cosby show” in the 80s and 90s – his became an interesting tale. What started out as “job shaming” has turned into not only new acting opportunities for Owens but also a lesson for everyone on the dignity of work, no matter what kind of work it is.
The story struck a nerve for me and I’ve struggled with what, if anything, I have to add to the conversation.
I’ve made vague references over the last two years to my working a “part time retail gig,” something I decided to do (with the encouragement and support of my wife) and written a bit about the challenges and rewards of doing so. But I’ve never *really* talked about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, along with how it’s affected me.
Allow me to drop the facade and be clear.
Two years ago, in September of 2016, it had been three months since I was let go from Voce Communications. A full time content marketing job was not forthcoming, though I was ending what wound up being a disastrous, soul-killing two-month contract position that began in August. As my job search continued to come up dry in October and into November things were starting to get tight financially and I needed to do *something.* I was frustrated and bordering on depression.
The job search eventually expanded to part time retail work. Eventually I got a response from just one company: Starbucks. I’ve worked there since November, 2016.
In that time I’ve had to confront, both internally and externally, many of the issues that have come to the surface in the last couple weeks. While I’ve addressed some of these topics in the past, allow me to be clear here on a few things. Specifically, I want to dispel some myths that frequently circle part time work.
1: It’s Unskilled Work
I don’t imagine that the average Walmart or Target employee could immediately jump in and do the work of a CPA, that’s true. Some could, for various reasons, but it’s probably not many.
That being said, I don’t imagine if you pulled the average CPA out of their office and asked them to make a venti iced caramel macchiato with soy milk, extra caramel drizzle and five pumps of sugar-free hazelnut syrup they’d get it right on the first try, either.
Here’s the truth: All work is skilled work. The differences are only in the details, in the kinds of skills being utilized. The people I work with are incredibly skilled at what they do, no less so than some of the other coworkers I’ve had in other jobs.
2: It’s For the Uneducated
This is malarkey. Again, the people working part-time retail or other jobs may have a *different* educational background than someone who works an office job, but that doesn’t make their education inferior or, worse, non-existent.
If you are disparaging the educational accomplishments of those who ring you up at Lowe’s or hand you your latte, you’re likely working hard to justify your own decisions, putting down those of others as part of that process.
Here’s the truth: We have a messed up system of correlating “work” and “pay/status” in this country. Someone sequestered in a cubicle for 40 hours a week is someone seen as worth more than someone who walks a store floor for similar – or greater – hours. That’s messed up.
Not only that, but if we are saying that some people are only fit for certain jobs because they lack the necessary education, then we need to confront the elements of the system that make the necessary education available to some but not others. How are we, as a society, restricting access to college – or even failing to provide a decent high school experience – to some people who will then be shamed because they can’t get a job that’s contingent on them having a college degree?
3: It’s For the Unmotivated
100% of my coworkers at Starbucks – every single one – has one or more of the following three things going outside of the time they’re at the store:
- Another job, often in the service industry as well.
- Is in school, usually college but also a few kids still in high school.
- Is a parent.
How’s that for motivation?
It’s not that someone working as a full-time professional doesn’t also have extra things along those same lines going on, it’s that it’s too often assumed the part-time worker is just working this job because they have to and would rather be home smoking weed and playing video games.
Dude, wouldn’t you?
Here’s the truth: It would be hard to find a group of people who have more motivation than your average retail employee. They need to hustle every damn minute of every damn day because (see #2 above) the pay stinks so they have to stitch a few things together to make ends meet, or because they’re working to get that education everyone values so highly. If the person behind the counter looks tired, it’s not because they’re lazy. It’s because they were up until 3AM studying and then came to work and after this shift they have to go tend bar at a place across town.
4: It’s Demeaning
Oh this is an interesting one, one that forms the core of the attitudes that initially swirled around Geoffrey Owens, or anyone who’s found to be working a job that seems “beneath” what we assume their status to be.
Many people seem to think those working part-time retail or service industry jobs feel bad about doing so, self-aware of the fact that they’re working some sort of “less than” job.
Let’s be clear about this: Someone doesn’t feel demeaned until someone actively demeans them.
It’s not the work itself that creates a feeling of shame. “Hard work is its own reward,” the saying goes, and the people on the retail or restaurant floor are working plenty hard.
A feeling of shame or of doing demeaning work only comes when we’re treated less well than the counter we’ve placed your drink on. When we’re yelled at for not getting your drink right. When we’re shoved out of the way while emptying a garbage can by someone who can’t be bothered to say “excuse me” as they don’t look up from their phone. When someone can’t be bothered to make eye contact or offer a simple “Thank you” in response to our serving them.
If you stop demeaning people, they won’t feel demeaned. It’s that simple.
All of these points – and plenty of others – stem largely from a lack of empathy, something I myself have been guilty of on more than one occasion. They never worked a part time job, or it’s been so long since they did they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on the other side of the register, or the one who’s sniped at because they don’t have an answer readily available.
That we’ve tied work so closely to identity in this country is problematic, because not only does it lead us to make decisions that sometimes aren’t in our own interest in order to keep a job but it leads us to project the attributes of a job we see as undesirable onto the person doing it. If someone is working what we see as a “menial” job, we assume that person to then be menial.
You couldn’t be more wrong.
As long as we continue to make access to healthcare, housing, good food, education and other basic necessities of life contingent on having not only *a* job but what’s considered to be the *right* job, we as a collective society are in no place to judge, much less shame, the choices someone makes regarding what kind of work they’re doing.
Working at Trader Joe’s? Cool, you are doing what you need to in order to support you and your family.
Working at Starbucks? Cool, you are doing what you need to in order to support you and your family.
Working at Wells Fargo? Cool, you are doing what you need to in order to support you and your family.
Working as a freelance graphic designer? Cool, you are doing what you need to in order to support you and your family.
Of course there’s the problem that not all jobs even meet the basic criteria outlined above. They may not pay enough to support yourself, much less anyone else. Part-time work often comes without medical and retirement benefits. So in those cases all that hard work doesn’t even have the same baseline personal benefit other jobs do. And there’s much less freedom involved because while the office worker may say “I have 30 minutes until my next call, I’m going to go get some coffee or take a walk,” the part time worker can’t as they’re required to stay on the floor their entire shift save for a couple breaks they themselves have no control over.
All of this is why I continue to believe society as a whole would be better served if people were encouraged and allowed to take six months off from their full-time jobs every few years and go work a retail or service industry job. Get back behind the counter and see how you’re treated. Refresh your well of empathy so that when you drive through Starbucks you take a minute and engage the person at the window in a bit of conversation, or just smile and say “thanks, have a great day.”
That kind of behavior from customers means a lot because it happens so rarely. When it does, though, it shows that someone still sees us as human beings worthy of respect, not losers who have made so many poor decisions there are no other options available to us.
We all, to some extent, derive dignity from what we do, regardless of what that is. If you’re treating someone with anything less than the dignity they deserve, that’s on you, not them.