Dignity through work

I started at 6.30 this morning, and have done three hours of house cleaning and tidying before sitting down to the computer. Yesterday I worked on various things, domestic and economic for 14 hours before curling up to read to my son. When I’m not using my brain for jobs (and let’s face it, cleaning is not brain intensive) I tend to contemplate things. Sometimes it’s the fiction work, but I do all kinds of other plotting and planning, and considering the world.

I can’t remember which of the UK politicians was making noises about dignity through work. It doesn’t entirely matter. The theory is that work equates to dignity. Up to the elbows in soap and dirty water, doing unpaid work I know will probably not even be noticed by the other folk in this house, much less rewarded with thanks or reciprocation… I thought about work and dignity.

In practice, for most people it’s not work that creates dignity and a feeling of worth, it’s having money and the attendant economic power. Staying home to raise a child is not seen as inherently worthwhile. Cleaning, feeding and caring for your tribe gets short shrift – not just from the powers that be, who want our tax money, (unpaid = not tax paying) but from wider society too.

I have an unnervingly low income at present. From an economic perspective, I should (and sometimes do) feel uncertain about my own value because of this. But I can conjure a nutritious and tasty meal out of raw ingredients and feed my son for very little. That’s something to take pride in too. It is also work.

It’s not paid work, necessarily, that defines dignity. People get all kinds of things from what they do – money is one, but status, a feeling of being useful and valued and contributing something useful is also tremendously important. Many jobs might issue cash, but they do not give much inherent satisfaction. I know too many people for whom work is, or has been demoralising, depressing and destructive. Focusing too much on the money takes us away from a far more important notion – work should be for something beyond the moving of money. It should improve something, and we should be striving after work we can feel good about, not sullied by.

The respect accorded in response to the things we do is also a source of dignity. Again, that doesn’t have to be about how much money is moved around. Dignity comes through the recognition of our efforts and value, through supportive human interaction, being thanked and appreciated. No amount of payment can substitute for that kind of response.

Good work is inherently dignified. It gets something done, it improves the world, it gives back to you as much, if not more than you put in. So no, three hours of housework and the resultant aches do not feel entirely undignified to me. I have done something useful. I do such work on a daily basis, as my grandmothers did before me back into history, and no doubt the majority of them were unpaid, and unremarked upon. There is honour in doing what needs to be done.

It’s often the lowest paid people who do the most essential things that keep our civilization moving. Industry depends on it. Without the workers on the shop floor, nothing gets made. Without the retail assistants and warehouse folk, nothing gets sold. I could go on. Power, and money are often too far removed from work and important action. We can’t overthrow the system this morning, but we can change how we think about our own work, paid and unpaid, and how we relate to those who are contributing, financially and otherwise. We can respect what is done, not the amount of money that changes hands because of it. There lies a personal revolution for anyone who can embrace it.

2 thoughts on “Dignity through work”

  1. I’m always self-conscious of the worker who provides a service to me. I’m super conscious of the worker who goes the extra mile in a career most others take for granted. I’ve been there including home maker and I know how I wanted to be treated for taking on such tasks. I remember once thinking my kids were so use to me in “survivor” mode as a single mom they probably didn’t have a lot of good memories of us because of the stresses of living paycheck to paycheck. Then, one day we were all talking (as grownups) and each had their favorite recollections of good times we had experienced together. I bet your son will remember you taking time to read to him and NOT the toy he couldn’t have at the moment. It is the legacy, the reputation that ultimately means more than any amount of money, I think.



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