Why not status?

I’ve been thinking recently about the problem of “meaningless work”, which refers to repetitive, low-skilled work that require little initiative by the worker. The problem has both Marxian and a Rawlsian flavors, but basically the problem is that meaningless jobs inhibit workers’ autonomy or create feelings of low status. Instead, the workplace should be democratically organized to give workers opportunities for autonomy on the job and raise the social status of workers.

The argument notes that one source of meaning for workers is the respect or status their work affords. However, something that’s always troubled me is the assumption that low-skilled work must be low-status. Why must that be so? There’s certainly nothing necessary about a connection between low-status and low-skilled work. Noah Smith wrote a very good post several years ago noting that societies may be highly egalitarian in terms of status while remaining highly unequal in terms of wealth or income. Smith noted that Japanese culture refers even rote line cooks with honorific titles and generally shames those who flaunt their wealth. Status does not track wealth.

If the connection between low-skilled work and low-status is a cultural artifact, then some of the wind goes out of the workplace democrats’ scales. As far as status goes, we don’t have to redistribute responsibility in the workplace–we might want to redistribute status to these workers.

My bourgeois sentiments find this ideal deeply attractive. One of the advantages of redistributing status is that it is comparatively cheap relative to redistributing wealth. A world with high levels of wealth inequality but low levels of status inequality has the material benefits of an unequal economy but the norms and customs of a much more egalitarian one. Adam Smith may have had something like this culture in mind when he celebrates the material improvements brought about by the desire for wealth, even when the wealthy often suffer from self-deception and vain-glory.

High-material inequality/low-status inequality has its challenges, of course. In another sense, status is much harder to re-distribute than wealth since there’s no obvious policy lever. It also requires a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, since material ambition must remain a somewhat respectable pursuit to drive economic growth.

Still, why not try? It certainly seems like an ideal worth endorsing.


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