My oldest son wants to be either an archaeologist or a tow-truck driver.
And when he gives that answer to the ubiquitous questioning of well-meaning adults, the response is almost always the same.
They nod when he says ‘archaeologist’ and laugh a bit when he talks about driving a tow truck.
It has always bothered me, the way that I cringe whenever someone jokes to a child about studying hard so that he/she won’t end up sacking groceries, or some other purportedly inferior occupation.
Because, really, who would you rather have around in a crisis–someone who can pull you out of a ditch, or someone who digs for fossils? I mean to say, what makes the former a perfectly respectable job and the latter obviously not, despite the contributions that both make to our overall society?
I don’t want Sam learning the lessons he undoubtedly absorbs from these repeated exchanges, the idea that economic status confers societal legitimacy, and that pursuit of that stature should drive his life plans.
And, so, it was with great parental, as well as policy advocate, interest that I read the part of The Spirit Level that presented evidence that children are more likely to aspire to lower-skilled work in more equal societies, because those jobs are more adequately (and accurately) valued in societies with greater equality.
And, without the stigma that attaches to jobs disdained in our highly unequal economy, kids are free to choose the occupations that seem terrific to their yet-untainted-by-inequality minds.
Like driving a big truck that can carry around big cars.
Setting aside my parental angst, there are policy reasons to care about how the next generation views its work, especially because we’ll always need tow-truck drivers.
With many of the fastest-growing industries those with comparably low wages, we have to confront our ever-increasing demand for occupations that are poorly compensated. Are we content to be a society where those who take care of us are not taken care of? Will some of these most critical jobs, then, continue to be filled by those who couldn’t make it to the truly-valued (although not always as productive) upper echelons?
Or do we want an economy, and a society, where hard work and meaningful contributions are rewarded adequately?
If so, we know how to get there: robust protection of labor laws, strong unions, progressive tax policies to finance a vibrant safety net.
And then we need to stop teaching harmful lessons to children like Sam, especially since we all claim to wish that we had careers that we chose for sheer love of the job, like the way his eyes shine when he sees those strong cranes on the back of a tow truck.
Because you could do a lot worse than to have him come to your aid on the side of the road.
We all could.