Nonessential Workers

One realization I found darkly amusing during the recent lockdowns is that I had spent much of my working life in jobs now all-too frankly described as nonessential. Kind of put me in my place.

Perhaps you had the same thought about your own roles. Almost certainly, the same is true of most people – I’d be curious to see the percentages. We nonessentials aren’t part of the supply chains necessary to sustain life.

I don’t mean to imply that nonessential jobs are unimportant. In addition to the value provided to customers, they provide sustenance for us and our families. And if we’re lucky, they’re fun and interesting. It’s just that other people won’t really suffer very much if we don’t show up.

Oh, maybe they’ll have fewer options for dining out, or for entertainment, or fashion, or travel or any number of other ephemerally pleasing endeavors; but really they’ll be just fine. Nonessential goods and services are just that; in fact, I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask most people what they missed most over these last few months it wasn’t those goods and services – it was the company of the other people they might have enjoyed them with. At least I hope that’s how they would answer.

If you think about it, the fact that so many of us work in nonessential jobs is the ultimate testimony to the wealth of our society. Under ordinary circumstances, almost all Americans have the luxury of purchasing nonessential goods without a moment’s thought. Ok, so some buy burgers, fries and Cokes at McDonalds before watching something on Netflix, while others splurge on fine dining and the opera; but neither group actually needs to do those things. We’re just intent on having fun.

In other words, our society has become so colossally prosperous that half (?) of us spend our energies producing goods and services designed to provide others with unnecessary convenience or passing pleasures. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, it’s kind of charming to think that so many of us are (or were, or will be) fundamentally in the business of making each other happy, even if only for a while.

Capitalism did – and does – that. Not central planning. Ever.

M.H. Johnston              

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