This past summer, I worked a job of a type that I had not tried before: I worked on a ranch for long weeks of 50-60 hours for a salary of $900 twice a month, my lunches provided on the job, plus a place to stay for no charge and a supply of beef for the whole summer. The living conditions were what many in our generation would likely call sub-par: I lived in a stuffy trailer home next to a highway with no AC or heating, well water that I couldn’t drink (so I had to haul water from a different location and shower in a quite pungent-smelling sulfur-mineral cocktail), my neighbor’s chickens clucking around and pecking at my trailer and anything else I left outside, a never-ending parade of mice getting caught in my mousetraps or drowning in my dishwater, and a 15-minute drive to get into decent cell reception. The work itself was also very unpleasant at times. I had to deal with dead animals quite a bit (deer, cows, mice, voles, prairie dogs, various birds), rancid water that I had to spread over large fields with ditches, pivots, and pipe in spite of weird topography where my sense of “downhill” was constantly in question. The work day-to-day generally involved getting wet, dusty, sweaty, cut, bruised, kicked, and shat-on (verbally and physically), as well being thrown off of four-wheelers, rattled-around in a truck on rough terrain, and blown over by gusts of wind while trying to set a dam for the fifth time. It was an exhausting experience, and I am sure many of my readers would not consider taking such a job. Neither would I, under normal circumstances, but given that I did, I think there are some crucial factors to this job that allowed me to come out of it not with regrets, but a real sense of self-worth, confidence, competence in the basic elements of a trade, and most importantly, purpose. The most significant factor that I can think of, per the title of this article, is summed-up in the difference between an hourly and salaried wage.
Up this point in my life I had only worked hourly-wage jobs. These were mostly things like maintenance, dishwashing, waiting tables, etc. Most of these jobs were unapologetically, inescapably, soul-deadeningly dull. I showed up at work wanting to get off almost every shift. My time at work was spent watching the clock to figure out how much money I had made and when the hell I could leave. I wasn’t bad at any of these jobs, as far as I know (Admittedly, I am woefully oblivious to two types of human interaction: reading signals when someone is NOT romantically interested in me, and when an employer wants me to hit the pavement. Maybe the two are related. But that is for a different article.), but I do not remember taking any pride in my work. I was always thinking about how to stretch out work to fill an hour, or cut my work short to get off early. My bosses always wanted me doing something. If there was dead time in the day, they would look for some menial bullshit for me to do because they were paying for me to be there and damnit they were going to get their money’s worth. I mostly felt like a very unwieldy hammer and all my tasks were nails which my bosses’ were going to hit regardless of their being previously pounded or not. The majority of the time I spent on the ranch I was doing very similar work (including dishwashing and waiting tables, since I was the unofficial cook at lunch for most of the summer), so I don’t think it was the type of work to blame for all of this minute-counting misery. Instead I think it was the framing that the hourly wage provides to tasks.
Think about the tasks that you have to do in your own life: scheduling, responding to texts and phone calls, doing the dishes, cleaning your domicile, making meals, prayer, daily reading, working out, etc. Do you do them because they fill an hour or provide some general monetary value to your life? No, you don’t, because each task has a specific worth in the economy of your life. I don’t mean a worth in the sense that you could assign a monetary value to it (though I suppose you could, I just wouldn’t consider you a very well-balanced human being) but because those tasks contribute unique goods incapable of conversion into some general monetary value. The good of a clean house is not the same as the good of an hour at the gym. They both contribute to the same good (our natural end as human beings) but they do not translate into each other precisely. If that were so we could live a good life by doing whatever was most “valuable.” Like working out 24/7 and not eating. Obviously, that is not the case. In the same way, the tasks assigned to hourly-wage workers are not convertible into each other: doing dishes is not the same as keeping a clean workspace, cleaning the trash compactor is not the same as moving furniture, etc. Each task has a specific end within the art of the business at hand. You keep a clean workspace not only because it keeps things efficient, but because order is good for human beings as such. You clean the trash compactor not just because you need something for your hourly wage worker to do, but also because no well-adjusted human being wants (or ought to want) their living space to smell like the New Jersey shore line. To act as if all the goods of these tasks are somehow translatable into each other is just another face of utilitarianism. There is no universal calculus to determine the worth of different actions in a human life, but there is a universal good in the telos of man. It is in light of that telos that all of the actions we undertake take on value. So, if one is spending the majority of their time working, the majority of their tasks are treated as not being valuable towards man’s telos but only (or mostly) valuable insofar as they done in the time being sold to the employer. So, for forty hours a week, Joe Schmoe is doing things without consideration of his final end because they are treated by his employer (and therefore his paycheck) as all worth the same.
Now, obviously, many of you are going to throw back the word “intentionality” as a cure and counter for my argument here. “Alasdair,” you say, “as long as you intentionally choose to do your tasks for the sake of your final end it doesn’t matter how you are paid. The key is in a new emphasis on intentionality. So get off your ass and go flip burgers for overweight poor people next to cocaine addicts.” This argument ignores the element of habituation in the human person. There is common assumption in recent discourse (vague claim is vague) that seems to rest on a divorce between what one is doing and the what one thinks. It does not matter what you do, if it can be both ignored and redeemed by your nobler faculties and other actions. I do not understand this. What happened to adages like “monkey see, monkey do”? Or “don’t shit where you eat”? The implication in both of these adages (though they do have distinct messages) is that surrounding oneself with elements adverse to the good life for man as such has consequences. Our intellect and will are inextricably bound to our bodies. We cannot treat them as though they are divorced from our nobler faculties. When we are flipping burgers in a fast-food chain or cleaning a trash compactor or trying to find something to do for the last few hours of our shift we are not Supermen floating above our own miniature Metropolises. We are just the poor fellow doing the dirty work. We are affected by toxic work relationships and the minimizing elements of the hourly wage and we do start to change our thinking – subtly and slowly – so that elements that used to be tolerated for the sake of our nobler faculties become less abhorrent to those faculties. The reality is that we most often do not pull the dirty work up but push the intellect down. The hourly wage, as I have tried to show, expedites this process. Any sort of menial work for an employer who does not understand its place within the good life will effect you negatively. The hourly wage increases that effect by reducing all of your work to the same wage, destroying their specific value in practice. Practice, through repetition, forms an often unacknowledged theory in one’s mind which flies in the face of the nobler faculties and warps the human person.
Now, there are obviously exceptions. There are some people either through extreme holiness or extreme schizophrenia can tolerate worthless work (hourly or salaried) for the sake of their final end. I do not think that so many of these people exist as our parents told us, nor do I think it is healthy (as in the case of the latter) to continually act as though we are something we are not. When a job is bad, it may be worth it to grit your teeth and bear it for a while. But that does not make the job good. Human beings seek the good by nature. We cannot lie to ourselves and say we can redeem every task all the time. Oftentimes, we are not Superman, but a miserable citizen putting on a happy face for the sake of our own fragile sanity and sense of self-worth.
To return to the wage and the ranch, I argue for the salaried wage because, despite being told explicitly that I was not part of the ranching family and made to do the dullest, nastiest work available, my work was still described and treated as what it was and my humanity was always kept in play. I was not just a pair of hands. I had a life and my boss wanted me to enjoy it. I needed to eat and eat well enough to work so my boss paid me in beef. I had hard work to do but my boss would let me off early sometimes for doing a good job. I was paid enough in cash and services to live well and happily. The work itself kept me strong and was never made out to be more than anything besides ranching. I probably could have made more doing something else for an hourly wage, but my life would be less rich for doing it. This is why I think the salaried wage has more potential for a good life. It leads the employer to consider the employee as someone who helps him as a person rather than a rented piece of machinery and leads the employee to consider both himself and his employer in the same way. It is even better in situations like this where the employer goes so far as to ensure your room and board and leisure time. I hope this article has at least opened your mind a bit more the implications of hourly wages this next time you are pounding the pavement. Or you could claim I’m justing bitching about this so I feel better about being unemployed. I leave that to you.