Column from Muna Wagner *NSFAQ "Not So Frequently Asked Qiestions"
„What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. And a sentimentalist is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900), Irish author, playwright and poet.
The question of the value of things, in this case the value of work performance, is a bit tricky. Depending on the definition, as Oscar Wilde put it succinctly in his play Lady Windermere's Fan from 1892, it can either relate to its market price or its estimation independent of any monetary appreciation, its so-called “value in itself”. However, as we are not able to live off fresh air alone we have to get compensated for our day’s work with money. Therefore, the worth of one’s work in modern society – given the work is not an honorary post and hence conducted for honour rather than for cash – is measured by the amount of money one receives in return.
From this point of view it follows naturally that the principle of supply and demand rules the (monetary) value of work in every market economy. By definition an expert is equipped with more knowledge than others in his discipline and as soon as (and as long as) this knowledge is in demand, the expert’s work will be considered of higher value. The better he performs his tasks, the more he can ask for his work. He is considered to deserve more; his work is more valuable.
We live in a society that appreciates expertise profoundly. In times of uncertainty, in which established structures begin to sway and different kinds of crises suddenly seem to threaten one’s feeling of security, experts can be compared to magic potion salesmen of the Middle Ages. They have to offer the solution, which improves everything or at least maintains the current standard. The individuals who can convincingly convey this concept keep their place in society and thereby their market value. At the same time, of course, there are areas that are in need of experts who support us in word and deed, or so we are told. A work life balance coach or a consultant for the latest smart phone apps are just two examples that come to mind. Everyone can become an expert. The whole trick is to invent something without which nobody is able to live anymore once they have discovered it (smartphones, Google or Facebook are a case in point). But how? A great idea doesn’t always come to mind when needed.
Is expertise really the decisive criterion for the monetary value of work? No, that would be too simple. The value of work can also decrease, when a task urgently needs doing but no one can be found to readily do it. The most obvious example is the one of the men and increasingly more women who clear our litter from the streets: dustmen. Tasks are therefore also well paid if nobody wants to perform them. This is a conclusion that can easily be drawn when thinking of the work done by dustmen. But what about the work done by cleaners? This is not a task most people would like to do, yet these are not necessarily better paying jobs.
Thinking of jobs that can be found at the lower end of the production chain, compensation based on evaluation does not seem to be sensible either. Many temporary jobs can be performed by various people, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do them, to employ an expert is therefore unnecessary. This holds true for the application of export licenses as much as masterly wrapped gifts, be it a book or a luxury item like jewellery. At the core of all this lies the fundamental idea that anybody could perform these tasks. It follows that such work is of lesser value, which directly translates into receiving a lower salary. Some of the aforementioned tasks I myself perform poorly, such as gift wrapping goods quickly and efficiently to customer satisfaction. Believe me, I tried. So not “everyone” is equipped to do temporary jobs equally well. However, it is precisely this work done by such gift wrappers in online stores that first catches the eye of the costumer. For a sloppily wrapped gift causes discontent with the shopper and, in the worst case, can lead to a decline in sales figures. The same can be said for handling customs clearance. A form that has been incorrectly filled out can throw back the originally scheduled delivery date by a few days or even weeks. This in turn immediately causes an increase in costs and, if repeated constantly, can negatively affect the company as a whole. These jobs, that find themselves at the very bottom of the production hierarchy, therefore contribute to a company’s success. Yet, not enough to make a living, for that is not how much they are deemed to be “worth”. These two examples of occupational groups are just little tasks performed at the margin of our society. But what about nursery school teachers? What about waiters in hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs? What about those who begin their work when most of us go home, those people who make sure that the offices are cleaned up and ready for “management” the next day?
With whom will you identify yourself the next time you negotiate the salary of a future co-worker? With the company you work for, that has once more successfully outwitted an employee, simply because it was able to hire a well trained, overly qualified temp for the minimum wage? Thanks to the free market? Or with the expert who, with clarity and full of self-confidence, demands a certain amount for his work, because his market position makes this possible too? Who really is this market that pulls the strings and under whose rules we act like puppets?
Surely, we all have a decision to make and, on a certain level, are free to do so – to the extent to which we are truly free and willing to accept the consequences. But this freedom of choice is given also to those who hold the whip hand. As children we were taught to treat others the way you want to be treated. Strange how we try to teach our children to be kind to one another and fail to act accordingly ourselves as soon as money plays a part, as if the other person isn’t “worth” being treated differently.
To be mindful of others, not to beat down the weaker person simply because one can, to live and work together: Key elements that play an important role in raising a child seem to loose all value upon entering the world of work. Or do these opinions matter only when it comes to family and friends?
At the end of the day, when all work has been done, no one can really tell if the money you are getting for your efforts really reflects the value of your work. Society will try to tell you your worth, the market will successfully impose it. Ultimately, the value of anything always depends on how much you think it is worth. Not in comparison to others, just in itself. Independent and free of other people’s opinions; evaluating it subjectively against your own bar, with only your inner compass as a guide. And isn’t such an examination of your own work, your attitude, and its subsequent result worth it?