Stop Job Shaming

Remember Geoffrey Owens from the Cosby show? He played Elvin, the young doctor who married into the Cosby family. He was photographed while bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s and was caught in an unflattering shot. It represented a downward fall from celebrity for many people. He said he was initially humiliated at being demeaned for doing what he needed to do to make a living and support his family. He then received an onslaught of supportive remarks about the dignity of work.

The woman who took the photo later regretted it. She didn’t intend to job shame him but realized her error after the photo went viral. Owens accepted her apology. This story is an example of job snobbery and classism. All work is valuable and one field of work is not better or worse than another.

Blue-collar and service industry employees often feel judged. White collar professions do not necessarily make one satisfied or produce higher incomes. A Harris Poll found that 86% of blue collar workers said they are satisfied with their job. Blue collar workers are defined as jobs requiring manual labor in construction, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, automotive services, maintenance, agriculture, forestry, fishing hunting or utilities. Interestingly, less than 1% of actors earn $50,000 or more per year, therefore you will find them in all sorts of careers to pay the bills at home.

There is a distinction between unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers. Semi-skilled labor does not require advanced training or specialized skills, but it does require more skills than an unskilled labor job. People who perform semi-skilled labor usually have more than a high-school diploma, but less than a college degree. Psychologist, Dolly Chugh, recommends that we stop using the term “unskilled” workers. Most of the jobs we call “unskilled” are actually highly skilled jobs that require manual dexterity, physical strength, endurance or patience. Negative assumptions are made of “unskilled” workers, contributing to a social hierarchy. We should also stop starting conversations with “What do you do?” and “Where do you work?” Someone’s livelihood does not define them. Being successful has nothing to do with what you do for a living. I’m reading that the US is becoming a “gig economy” in which people generate money from a number of sources. Think of Uber, Lyft, and work from home call centers which allow flexibility and added income.

So, why do we job shame? According to social identity theory, it is human nature to divide groups into “us” and “them.” Our social identity is based on group membership which gives us a sense of pride, self-esteem, and belonging. Sadly, the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image. We see the group to which we belong as being different from the others, and members of the same group as being more similar than they really are.

Why do we take pleasure in another’s downfall? There’s actually a name for it. Schadenfreude. It is a bit of enjoyment at the misfortunes of others. It is a way to feel better about yourself. People with low self-esteem, or who feel threatened by others, tend to experience schadenfreude more often. People with higher self-esteem don’t need the misfortune of others to feel better.

Are you a job snob? If so, consider your motivation and examine your self-esteem. You might benefit from self-reflection.

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