The Startling Truth About “What We Deserve”

Does your job actually matter?

Maarten van Doorn
Jun 24, 2018 · 4 min read

Jobs are like clothes.

More precisely: pay is like fashion.

The reasons that jeans are fashionable or that certain jobs are well-paid are, in both cases, quite random.

Yes, I’ll explain.

Arbitrary outcomes

Fashionability is completely relative, and we know it is.

There are no ‘facts’ about whether something is or is not fashionable. When something goes out of fashion, it’s not like we have discovered a ‘truth’. It’s not like, “We thought jeans were fashionable, but the latest science shows that they actually aren’t”.

Rather, something goes out of fashion because of contingent, sociocultural factors.

As such, it’s a largely random process.

Likewise, when some career is well-paid, that’s not because it genuinely is important: the material rewards one receives for one’s ‘contribution’ to society are hardly connected to how valuable that contribution really is.

In our system, the amount of money paid for work done doesn’t depend on the importance or value of the work. Instead, like the fashionability of clothes, heights of salaries are governed by fluky, unconsidered processes.

Why we don’t get what we deserve

Many of us believe that “we get what we deserve”.

Yet, when we examine how our sense of ‘deservingness’ matches real-world salaries, it turns out that they hardly correlate. People feel, for example, that you should be rewarded if you work hard and make sacrifices. In practice, the hardest-working people (such as dishwashers and agricultural laborers) are often paid the least.

So what is the reason that certain work gets highly compensated, while other work does not?

To answer that, we must change our focus from how we think that material rewards should be distributed to how they, in fact, are distributed: how does salary really work?

It turns out that our system doesn’t care much for what people deserve.

Wages are high because of little labor supply compared to the demand for this skill by those with the money.

Wages are low because of much labor supply compared to the demand for this skill by those with the money.

Market prices reflect willingness to pay by those who can: the amount of compensation one receives for a task depends on how badly those with money want to have it done versus how many people can do it.

Often, people who get paid a lot (like football players, consultants and stock traders), get paid abundantly because they happen to come of age in a time and a place where those with money happen to esteem or to need people with their talents. Because, in other words, their skills are fashionable.

And so, the way in which our economic system distributes financial rewards is not so just as you might have thought it was.

Price versus value

To sum up: we assume that pay is a measure of worthiness, but some critical questioning quickly unmasks this assumption as false. Whereas we think that compensation reflects contribution, it doesn’t. Rather, it reflects the workings of market forces.

Hence, actual earnings are hardly connected to what one earns to earn.

For instance, those working in education and healthcare do stuff that’s way more valuable than those working in so-called bullshit jobs—jobs that are pointless according to those who get paid to do them — yet their reward is, on average, significantly lower.

For the record, I think such scrutiny is a textbook example of the value of philosophy, of spotting the questions that should be asked and sensing when one should be suspicious of what appears to be self-explanatory.

This time, our questions revealed that what one receives for the work one does is determined by factors that are unrelated to the importance of one’s work.

And therefore, pay does not reflect worthiness and money is not a good indicator of worth.

As anthropologist Dan Graeber — who coined the term “bullshit jobs” — writes:

“In the US, Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?

Strikingly, survey results from multiple countries consistently reveal that over a third of all employees think that their form of paid employment does not contribute anything to the world.

Clearly, this way of organizing society doesn’t make sense.

Let’s think about how we can change that.


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Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. I write to change common sense about education, success and (post-)truth. Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.