I’m Ashamed to take a Low-Class Job

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Reader’s Question

I know that when it comes to work, everyone has to start somewhere, and that is typically much further down the ladder than we’d like. Still, I find it hard not to identify with the low social status of particular jobs I’m qualified for, such as store clerk. I see my perfectionism as stopping me from being more flexible in finding work. For example, I don’t have a university education and searching for jobs is humbling. The last resort is to take a low-class job, but I am embarrassed and ashamed about this type of job. I am 26, but I have no choice currently and I have to make a living. I worry how I will look in front of others, even those who know me.

I know the job is not me as a person, and it’s only a place on the way to finding something better, but it’s easier said than done. I don’t how to accept myself in this type of job — to be comfortable with it — and how to find the right mindset and swallow my ego and pride.

Psychologist’s Reply

You’ve hit upon an important truth: people often equate their employment with their worth or status in society. Indeed, often the first thing we ask people we’ve just met is what they do for a living. That question may be an easy way to find something to talk about, but it also implies that what someone does for work is the most important aspect of who that person is.

Also, work is perhaps the only aspect of life that is quantified on the same scale for everyone: wages in the form of money. So, it’s tempting to compare one’s worth in society to how much one is paid for the work one contributes. Of course it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that the correlation between pay and how important each person’s work is for the functioning of society is fairly low. If some of the lowest paid workers suddenly disappeared and were not replaced, society would grind to a halt.

As you describe, it’s often important not to equate your worth or value with how much you earn. Instead, remind yourself that everyone needs an income to provide for basic needs, and earning that income entails some degree of dignity as a result of being self-supporting. Also, any job done well and with an appreciation for its purpose can be meaningful. And even the simplest or “lowest” of paid jobs represents many opportunities to make a difference in other people’s lives. Take for example the role of cashier or clerk. These folks have numerous opportunities to brighten people’s day and serve as a beacon of hope that humanity has not sunk to the low level that some people are tempted to conclude.

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I encourage you to continue to examine your own assumptions about work, pay, and worth, and to consider the illogical and unrealistic nature of some of these assumptions as they’re typically held in society. Take pride in the degree to which you do your work well, and the difference it makes for others, even if it seems small in any one instance. When other people ask what you do for a living, the tone with which you respond might go a long way in determining how they view you. And when someone implies that your job is not glamorous, dignified, or important, you can simply shrug and say, “Everyone has to eat” or some other rehearsed phrase you’ve prepared for the less enlightened.

Last, you can view your low-status job as an incentive to work toward something more to your liking. The status or prestige associated with a particular job is unlikely to make the position satisfying or desirable in and of itself, so a “better” job may not entail a boost in social status. Still, to the extent that there is other work you desire more, stay focused on how your current job can serve as a step in that direction. There may not be any obvious connection between what you do for a living now and what you’d like to do, but even then, the former can serve as motivation for the behaviors needed to accomplish the latter.

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