Calling workers 'unskilled' reveals a major misconception about labor
- New York City's new mayor,
Eric Adams, said this week that service workers "don't have the academic skills to sit in the corner office."
- His statement is based on a common misconception about the workforce.
On his second day as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams made an appeal to office-based businesses: He pushed for companies to demand their office workers return to
"You are part of the ecosystem of this city," he said. "My low-skill workers — my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoe shine people, those that
Though Adams intended to highlight the inter-dependency of New York City's economy, where restaurants and
Though cooks, bike messengers, and Dunkin' employees all work in service-based jobs, these are not "low-skill workers" who "don't have the academic skills" for office-based work. Despite the complexity of the work, these jobs are deemed "unskilled" or "low-skill" because they demand repetition of menial work — critically important stuff like making sandwiches and pouring coffee. They also make up the vast majority of the American workforce at nearly 80%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And during the height of the
The modern origin of 'skilled' and 'unskilled' labor
The idea that service workers "don't have the academic skills" for office work is a common misconception that's rooted in American history.
The modern concepts of "skilled" and "unskilled" labor in America are pulled from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as so-called "white-collar" jobs became increasingly necessary in the management of industrial capitalism.
During that period, a "social stratification" was occurring: White-collar jobs became more respectable because they required a high-school education and were paid a salary rather than hourly wages. Working in factories and on farms didn't carry the prestige of the newly emerging class of managerial job.
That social stratification came to define much of 20th Century America, with millions of American parents defining success for their kids as a college education leading to a salaried office job. To work in the service industry, by comparison, is considered by some to be a failure.
The inequity between people working in offices — who can work remotely with relative ease — and people working in service jobs that require a physical presence, like restaurant workers and bike messengers, has been evident since long before the pandemic threw it into a starker-than-ever light.
Salaried office employees are much more likely to have stable work schedules, with weekends off and paid vacations. They're able to work while sitting, and use the bathroom as they wish. Office jobs often come with benefits like healthcare and 401K retirement plans.
Service jobs, on the other hand, often have erratic schedules, with work that demands physical labor, and with little or no benefits. Those jobs were made more difficult during the first year of the pandemic when many service workers were asked to continue working through wave after wave of surging
The result has been an exodus of employees from service jobs, with entire staffs quitting en masse in some instances. It's often referred to as a "labor shortage," but one thing is clear: When businesses offer higher wages, they're able to attract more workers.
But workers have been fighting for a $15 minimum wage for nearly 10 years, and $15/hour still doesn't provide a living wage. While some companies have budged, the market typically values service jobs less, mostly due to their apparent ubiquity and lower barriers for entry.
If these workers are really considered "essential" in America, rather than "unskilled workers," they should be treated — and paid — as such.
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