Dignity is the precious commodity employment can't seem to provide
Is a “fully dignified” job possible?
I’ve been reading about professional superstar athletes who cry before games and practices due to pressure and fear of their bosses/coaches, which makes me think:
1. Celebrity athletes—they’re just like us (blubbering messes, scared of “teacher”)!
2. Dignity—something that truly is hard to come by, that so many work-humpers tell us is a job’s biggest gift—is rarely, if ever, found in employment
By “dignity,” I mean it as defined in the dictionary: “the state of being [you could say, feeling] worthy of respect.” Respect meaning “due regard for the feelings, wishes, and traditions of others.” When you allow someone dignity, you are giving them proper respect, which in essence means you are giving them space to exercise choice and consent.
Reading these definitions, I think we can all start to see why jobs are hostile soil for dignity.
While well-meaning activists talk about “dignified wages,” it’s clear to me that a high salary alone cannot buy it (though I will fully grant that the indignities one faces on low wages are usually much more crushing).
In fact, those on the giving end of a money transaction often see themselves as buying the license to ignore the receivers’ dignity. You can see this play out in most American retailers or restaurants—patrons teeing off on the employees who are “serving” them.
Who gets to fully keep their dignity in our society?
I’m not sure, but those who strike me as closest (besides retired people who aren’t in dire straits) tend to be entrepreneurs and freelancers. It’s not an coincidence that a sub-current of the American Dream we’re all sold is “sticking it to the man and being your own boss,” a tantalizing state because we can all, no matter how cushy our jobs are, feel the inherent indignity of having our agency and choice overridden by someone else.
Some entrepreneurs go on to be employers themselves and, disappointingly, slip into dignity-denying attitudes toward their own employees. While this could be seen as ultimate betrayal of what made many of them strike out on their own in the first place, it can also be inevitable despite their best intentions, if you’re to believe Dr. Devon Price’s view that there is no ethical way to be a boss or why Richard Wolff advocates for abolishing employment altogether.
Which gets to my sincere question: is “fully dignified” employment even possible?
I’ll grant Dr. Price and Prof Wolff that the time I felt MOST dignified was during seven months of unemployment. I was very anxious and stressed, sure, but didn’t feel a shred of the shame of “uselessness” I expected. Instead, every morning that I looked at the day and felt fully at choice over how I would spend my time, I felt incredibly empowered. That little scrap of autonomy, of true dignity, we perhaps feel on weekends and holidays was the dominant feature of my life during those months, and it more than made up for the disapproving body language of my work-humper friends, let alone any money scarcity.
Yet, I sincerely don’t want to believe that dignity is impossible within a job, because it’s very disempowering to hinge hopes for such a human need on a full-scale dismantling of the system that, though I’m very down for it, is frankly very far from our collective imagination. While we work toward that, we also have figure out ways to to get dignity now, in the present, within the arrangement of employment that most of us must cope with.
Has anyone out there felt fully dignified at a job? Or can you at least imagine a job where full dignity is possible? I sincerely want to hear from you.