Yesterday the governor of my state, Andrew Cuomo, said this:
You want to go to work? Go take a job as an essential worker.
As someone who works professionally in the field of career development, I have something to say about this.
However, first of all, I want to say this: It is getting tiring to see the predominant ethic of shame on social media. If someone says something others don’t like, that person is shamed and silenced rather than respected. But the foundation of a free society is allowing people to say things you don’t agree with, and treating them with respect. Instead of shaming a person, the thing to do is express your disagreement by using reason and argument — and doing so in a gracious and respectful way. And you need to assume the best of a person. A society is healthier when all sorts of different views are able to be presented without threat of social stigma and social harm (shame is a form of social harm), and we treat one another fairly. Beyond this, if you resort to shame it is an almost immediate tip off that you might not actually have actually formulated good reasons for your position.
To apply this to Cuomo’s statement means this: This is probably one of those things he wishes he had said differently. Sometimes we all say things in the moment that come across differently than we mean. In this case, his comment seems very insensitive. I think he would probably prefer to revise it.
Now, to focus on the issues, his statement raises two broader issues that often come up in many other ways as well. First, the comment raises the issue of job choice. And the answer it implies is the wrong one (albeit somewhat common). The problem is that it goes against the nature of what it takes to build an effective career. To build an effective career, you have to give concern to what kind of jobs are a good fit for you. You cannot only say “this is available, this is easy to get, this is what I will do.” That is a reductionistic approach to career management that does not take skill and job satisfaction into account — things which are very important (even if they don’t always feel urgent — on which, see below). This approach is less effective — not only for you, but also for the positive impact you will be able to have on others. Even temporarily, it is a risky approach to choosing jobs. It is also inefficient. Should the sales manager at a car dealer, whose work is on hold right now, really set aside his career in order to take a job in an Amazon warehouse for three weeks? This implies that switching jobs is easy and can be done at the drop of a hat. Further, maybe it’s better for the sales manager to be getting ready to get back to work and taking this time to sharpen his skills and do professional development. Beyond this, it is not up to the government to tell people what jobs they should and should not be pursuing.
Second, it raises the issue of whether it is most helpful to speak in terms of “essential workers.” Here, productivity comes into play. What we are dealing with here is not actually the categories of “essential” and “non-essential,” but “urgent” and “important.”
What we really mean when we speak of “essential” work is urgent work. Almost all jobs are, I would say, essential in one way or another. Or, to put it in productivity terms, important. The issue is that some jobs that are important deal with urgent needs, and some jobs that are important deal with non-urgent needs. The fact that something is not-urgent does not mean it is not important. It just means you can delay dealing with it for a time. But if you delay dealing with it indefinitely, there is a price to pay — that is just as bad as ignoring urgent needs. In fact, if you don’t do the non-urgent but important work, it causes the urgent and important work to build — it’s why so often we are putting out fires.
Here is an example. Drinking water is urgent and important. If I go more than a day without drinking any water, I will start to experience many negative effects and fairly soon, my health will be at risk. Exercising, on the other hand, is not urgent. I can skip running for three days, or even a week, and not experience negative health ramifications. But if I never go running (or regularly exercising in some other way), I will experience significant long-term health issues. Exercising is important, but not urgent. As you can see, the fact that it is not urgent does not mean that it is not important, and it does not mean that I can put it off indefinitely.
So it is with “essential” and “non-essential” workers. The “non-essential workers” are doing things that are important and must be done. They are, in other words, doing truly essential things. They are just not doing things that are as urgent as those in the category being called “essential.”
Out of respect for all types of work, and all types of lawful careers, I would therefore suggest a better term is “urgent” workers, rather than “essential” workers.