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  • Joshua Ballance

Inessential?

A survey on the most and least essential jobs from this week’s Sunday Times caught my attention (courtesy of @mhall_viola). It’s been, on the whole, pleasing to see the developing acceptance during the last three months that the most essential jobs are not the most highly paid. Whilst this survey presents doctors & nurses as the most essential, second were cleaners, and third rubbish collectors. Nonetheless, in this neoliberal society of ours, financial compensation is as much a means of awarding status as material goods, and it’s been interesting to follow the discourse surrounding these lowly-paid ‘heroes’.

If I’m honest, it’s worried me somewhat. Coming from the same people who vote to strip these workers of financial support (be they nurses or self-employed cleaners), I can’t help but feel that this branding of people as ‘selfless’ has an ulterior motive. If people are doing something for a moral reason, if part of their ‘compensation’ is pursuing a career that is ethically rewarding, we are provided with a justification for suppressing their financial pay. It’s not an argument that I’m particularly sympathetic to, but at a stretch you can see how it might apply to nurses, or certain groups of doctors. The idea that people choose to be rubbish collectors or delivery workers (fifth in this survey) to fulfil a higher ethical calling that therefore justifies poverty wages is unlikely, and the branding as self-sacrificing heroes who nobly keep working through a pandemic primarily out of a commitment to serving society is ludicrous at best, and dangerous at worst. Don’t get me wrong, rubbish collectors and cleaners who have kept working are remarkable, but I imagine in many cases it’s less out of choice than financial pressure.

Despite what the last paragraph might suggest, this wasn’t actually the part of the survey that initially piqued my interest. Turning to the inessential jobs, third-least-essential was ‘social media manager/PR specialist’, second was ‘telemarketer’, and least essential of all, ‘artist’. Aha, you think. Now you know why I’m wittering on about this survey.

It’s a damning indictment of the ridiculous way in which we ascribe significance that we view artists as inessential. Presumably this is because they don’t have a ‘real job’: putting on a suit, going into an office, working from 9 until 5, not enjoying it. Artists, by contrast, just sort of waft around in a fog of alcohol-fuelled decadence, occasionally producing this inessential art that no one needs.

It speaks, I think, to the same insidious justifications surrounding our underpaid ‘heroes’. Much as Amazon delivery workers are currently being told their criminally-low wages are justified through the moral satisfaction they get from their job, so this country fails to support artists because they have some other form of compensation. If I had a pound for the number of times that I’ve been told how lucky I am to have ‘my passion’ as a job I’d be as rich as the management consultants proudly offering this insight. On one level, they’re right: it’s a privilege (and I mean that seriously, with all the wokeness it connotes) to be able to write, perform, and study music for a living. Yet again there’s the same undertone: you get something out of your job other than money, and so that can and should be subtracted from the amount you’d otherwise be paid given the training and time required, and in any case it’s all luxurious anyway; no one needs art the way they need hedge funds.

The Sunday Times readers consulted for this survey will be pleased, I suppose, that this government is abandoning the arts. Our staunch Brits hardly need the inessential hand-outs of Germany (€500m for artists) or New Zealand (€16m for ‘new creative projects’). Except, across this lockdown there has been widespread reliance upon the arts. If so inclined, one could cynically brand this as escapism, but it’s surely more than this. People need music and theatre, photography, literature, and film. These are essential, particularly for our mental and spiritual health, but by extension for the health of our society. Indeed, even if we adopt an ardently capitalist mindset, one might think that people creating commodities might be more essential than those marketing them on Twitter.

There’s been plenty of speculation about what the lasting impacts of this pandemic might be, from increased hand-washing to less hugging. If I have one hope, it’s that it might provoke a serious rethinking regarding how we assign value to occupations. (Indeed, to widen the scope I hope that we might, one day, cease fetishising the free-market and rejection a definition of value as totally market-derived. We have made a decision to understand value in this way, it’s not some unchanging natural law, but that’s a wider, if intimately related, discussion.) In this case, jobs certainly do provide more than just financial compensation, but in a society this wealthy this is never a justification for poverty wages. The essential workers of this period are heroes, but we can’t let that shape our understanding of why they’re working. Meanwhile, don’t abandon artists: we might not be as materially significant as doctors & nurses, but we’re certainly not the most inessential.

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© 2020 by Joshua Ballance