January 08, 2021

Socially Made and Essential 

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Backing out of my driveway to head to the grocery store, I’m careful to avoid hitting the garbage tote at the end of the driveway. It’s garbage day. Workers from our town sanitation department are like mail carriers—they won’t be stopped by rain, sleet, or snow from doing their job. It snowed last night, so I’m driving out of my neighborhood on streets plowed by town highway workers and onto a road plowed by county plow drivers.

When I arrive at the store, I see carts in the parking lot that will be collected by a worker and brought inside the store. Upon entering the store, I see someone working in the floral department, while other employees are stocking produce. This store always has an abundance of fruits and vegetables. I think of a video I saw on Twitter posted by United Farm Workers, showing incredible skill level by farmworkers.

The store is clean because of ongoing work that isn’t always visible to customers’ eyes. As I make my way through the store, the music I hear boosts my mood. “This Is It” by Kenny Loggins with Michael McDonald, “He’s So Shy” by the Pointer Sisters. This is perfect grocery store music. Who put together this fantastic playlist? Or was it an algorithm? In that case, who programmed the algorithm?

When I’m ready to check out, two cashiers are waiting, waving me in, and joke that they can fight over me because it isn’t busy yet. This small pleasantry makes me smile and laugh out loud. On the way home, while waiting at a red light, I think for a moment about the people who designed the traffic system, structuring a safe ride for drivers. Then I wonder, what teams of people engineered and helped build the car I drive?

In thinking this way I’m applying a lesson from Peter Kaufman by recognizing the sociological idea of interdependence. I’m also inspired by one of my favorite articles from 2020, one with the stellar title “There’s No Such Thing As Unskilled Labor”. Back in March 2020, Sarah Jones highlighted the significance of grocery store workers, Amazon warehouse workers, and delivery drivers in keeping society running during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wrote:

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus should debunk at last the idea that low-wage labor is less essential than other kinds of work. The categories of essential versus nonessential — or skilled versus unskilled labor — were never as clear as their common usage implied. As the pandemic rearranges American life, possibly for good, it should also force a reckoning. The way we think about labor and work has to change.

One of the important points in the article is that many low-wage workers in the private sector aren’t unionized, making them especially vulnerable. During the pandemic, workers are rightly being regarded as heroic, but, as Jones wrote in a May 2020 article, workers need more than gratitude: “They also need unions, livable wages, and paid leave.” I appreciate her articles because she honors workers and emphasizes that workers need protections and improved working conditions.

This post came about because I wanted to combine themes from writing by Kaufman and Jones that I admire. We aren’t independent beings floating through the world. We’re connected, we rely on each other, and we’re essential. People are praised for being self-made even though, in reality, no one is self-made. To say that Kylie Jenner is self-made, or that the majority of billionaires are self-made, is a ludicrous claim. As Kaufman said in “The Myth of the Self-Made Person,” the notion of the self-made person is arguably the most anti-sociological idea imaginable. Teachers, friends, mentors, and countless other people in our lives propel us forward. Both our failures and successes are tied to our social interactions, social networks, and social influences. As Kaufman wrote, it’s not as catchy to describe people as being socially made rather than self-made, but it’s the truth.

Why not be honest about the influences of people in our social world and how they contributed to our achievements? It doesn’t diminish your hard work or accomplishments to give love to the people who gave you an assist. Years ago, Kevin Durant offered a masterclass on how to do this when he thanked his teammates, friends, and family when he was awarded the MVP: “I had so much help. So many people believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. So many people doubted me and motivated me every single day to be who I am.” I’ve watched the speech many times, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s a positive development that workers are increasingly seen as essential. I hope workers are given even more respect, that they make gains with pay and benefits, and that we better understand work as valuable and skillful. The only point I want to add is that we’re essential regardless of our work status. Whether we work or not, we are valuable and have the ability to lift people up. Friends, family, and partners support and inspire each other, provide each other with love, care, and esteem, and help each other navigate their paths in life. We are all socially made and essential.

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