At the beginning of September, social media and celebrity watchers ganged up on actor Geoffrey Owens to “job shame” him for working as a cashier and bagger at a Trader Joe’s grocery between acting roles. As a young man, Owens was a principle player on the television series The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992), which launched him into stardom and kept him before the public since the show remained one of the most popular rerun series on TV. In 2014, however, scandal engulfed star Bill Cosby, and The Cosby Show disappeared from television and streaming services in response to public outrage. As Owens explained during a follow-up interview, the residuals earned from the show, combined with ongoing work in TV, theatre, and film and teaching drama classes, allowed him to support his family without seeking non-arts related employment. When the residuals dried up because the show ceased running, he was forced to find additional work to make ends meet.
Weighing in on the mass polemic, Salon ran an article arguing that what occurred resulted from popular misconceptions of the artistic lifestyle – a world of high prestige but low pay:
Owens faced the dilemma of many artists: You work extremely hard at perfecting your craft, get enough breaks to earn notoriety and even fans, hit a wall with limited opportunities and then have to seek work at a place that society doesn’t value as much as your previous profession. It's tough, but it happens all of the time. And instead of those so-called fans rallying around you and supporting your art that they claimed to like, they tell the tabloids, shame you online, and write you off as a failure, as if working at Trader Joe's is tantamount to being a homeless drunk.
There is plenty of truth to Salon’s assessment: in a country where professional success is assumed to be linked to commensurate financial reward, the average American Joe would have difficulty understanding how someone like Owens, with all his professional laurels, could still need to work at a grocery to earn money.
In an interview, Owens responded to the vitriol by saying:
What I hope continues to resonate is the idea that one job is not better than another. A certain job might pay more, it might have better benefits, it might look better on paper, but that essentially one kind of work isn’t better than another kind of work, that we reevaluate that whole idea and start honoring the dignity of work and the dignity of the working person.
In an encouraging display of solidarity, people normally from opposite sides of the socio-political aisle, e.g. actors and small-business owners (basically anyone whose work circumstances might be completely different from popular perception), united to denounce the pillorying of a man who had enough self-respect to earn an honest living. One reason this incident is remarkable is that it defied the current narrative of creative types who are out of touch with the reality of the ordinary people; if anything, the furor has demonstrated that the ordinary people are out of touch with reality.
The disconnect from reality is manifested by, as Salon pointed out, netizens deeming work as a cashier as having no better stature than that of a drunken bum. Although Salon used the word “failure” to describe the mob’s implicit attitude toward Owens, the conversation was not really about failure and success: it was, as Owens noted, about dignity.
As the US is forced forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), even as the populist narrative seeks to tap into a secret desire to turn the clock back past the Third Industrial Revolution (Digital Revolution), much of the social conscience portion of the discussion turns to the topic of job dignity. The foundational assumption of the mainstream discourse is that positions currently available at the entry and low-skilled levels are undignified. From this premise, the conversation segues into a series of arguments on security, stability, and wages.
The truth is that there is a nasty undercurrent to the dialogue that is best described as a desire for fixed professional boundaries. In his book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town (2014), author Brian Alexander blames, after Milton Friedman, the modern workforce for the collapse of the glass manufactory that supported his home town. Illogically, he connected the town’s decline to the fact that those who worked at the factory, as of 2014, fell into one of two categories 1) addicts who only sought to fund their illness or 2) young college graduates, artists, or musicians who worked to pay off student debt or fund the launching of their careers. The view expounded by the author was that this last group caused job instability through their very temporariness; when everyone knew that the valuable people would soon move onto bigger, better things, why should owners and management invest in the people who remained? [The author was very uninformed about how ownership and property management actually work.] The implicit idea was that by doing low-skilled work, the second group was somehow violating an unspoken social contract that reserved such jobs for the truly low-skilled. According to this vision, there was nothing admirable about this group’s willingness to work in jobs unrelated to their specialties in order to pursue their goals or dreams.
In the contemporary American debate, assumptions and arguments, such as those represented by Alexander and his book, are a continuous undercurrent. In this narrative, job dignity is a movable goalpost. When the discussion concerns a low-skilled, uneducated person, cashiering or bagging is dignified; when it concerns someone who doesn’t identify with the job, for whom it is merely a stepping stone, then the person is excoriated. It is as if the fact that the person has options, talents, or aspirations means that he can only be considered dignified if he holds a job that visibly matches his training and abilities, e.g. actors should only act, engineers should only design, artists should only draw or paint, etc. The result of this wider cultural attitude has been a type of self-limitation, one that is an utter invention and is, generally, historically anomalous, but nevertheless is immensely powerful. As the US continues to discuss the social aspects of the new economy, we should be cautious of accepting as gospel any prevalent assumptions regarding employment and jobs.