Some arguments for having an awful job are self-evident enough. If you have ever worked behind a cash register, you are familiar with a certain breed of customer who uses your stamp of minimum-wage labor to initiate a power struggle. They are all too familiar with the customer-is-always-right mentality, and thus, by their flawless standards of deduction, the employee is always wrong. Often, the employee is entirely helpless to a closed system and has zero authority, and the customer derives a certain satisfaction from that powerlessness. Clearly, these are the people we must never become.
When one is tempted to begin a struggle with a Subway employee who did not tessellate the cheese properly, a former lousy-job worker is more likely to acknowledge that this is how the workers have been instructed to apply the cheese and that they could face dismissal if these rules are violated. The employees are not on a malicious mission to deprive you of a reasonable amount of cheddar. One might conclude that working a job in which one is rendered entirely powerless and must conform to bizarre and illogical rules might increase one’s empathy for fellow workers. If even the smallest lesson is to be learned from a minimum-wage job, it is that we must always treat these workers with respect and decency. Eight dollars an hour sucks. If you’ve ever had to live on that money alone, you understand the incredible feat of making it through the day. Yet a huge percentage of Americans are forced to dedicate their life to this task, spinning monetary dregs into sustenance and shelter.
But the fact is, we are students attending an elite liberal arts college. This means that at some point in our lives, we were branded as extraordinary. If all goes well, we will not work minimum-wage jobs for the rest of our lives. We have excelled, and we have become accustomed to excellence. There is a danger inherent in this mentality that is beyond the scope of this rant. What happens to those who are not lucky enough to be deemed excellent?
The truth is, no one can excel at cleaning the feces off of toilet rims. Minimum-wage labor reduces everyone to a level playing field. You are no longer praised for your intelligence and insight—you are just like everyone else. This is an important feeling, this sense of ordinariness. This humility is essential, lest we grow up lopsided due to our swollen heads. You might be the only person at the bicycle rental place with a grasp on Camus, but there is only one correct way to rent the bicycle, and all your coworkers do it about equally well.
To feel excruciatingly ordinary is fundamental for human experience, though this concept is, again, beyond the scope of this column, and perhaps my powers of articulation. However, I can say this: it is necessary to create camaraderie with rather than condescension at that face behind the register, even if only because that face was once you. It is not just about being sympathetic to your baristas, and it is certainly not about regarding them with pity. As I’ve said, the way they make ends meet is often nothing short of miraculous. We must always be looking for ways to cultivate empathy and respect in a society where these core values are frequently threatened by complacency.