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Work • Status & Success

You Are Not What You Earn

A fundamental belief of the modern world, which explains a lot of our anxiety around failure, is that we are what we earn.

When we say this, we mean something very particular: not just that it’s nice to have a lot of money but that our income is the source of information, crucial, decisive information, about our character, our intelligence, our moral fibre: in short, money is the key indicator of our worth in human and not just financial terms. The more money we make, the more we deserve to exist.

Walter Gay, November (1885)

By extension, it feels impossible to imagine ourselves as good, decent – and still poor.

But can this really be true? Must we hate and deem ourselves despicable beings because our salary is not elevated?

For an answer, we must look to economics and in particular, to the way that salary is determined. Here we find something striking: wages are not decided by the extent of someone’s human worth or social contribution per se. Wages are simply the result of the intensity with which certain people want a job done relative to the number of people who happen to be able to do it.

If many people can complete a task, however humanly important it might be (holding a hand on a cancer ward), little money will be offered for it.

Pieter de Hooch, Woman Nursing an Infant, with a Child and a Dog (1658-60)

And if there are very few people able to do it, however trivial it might be (kicking a ball 60 metres into a goal), if there’s intense demand, salaries will be elevated.

Money is in fact no accurate measure of the human worth of the work in question; the determinant of wages is just the strength of demand in relation to supply.

We may not be able easily to change how much people earn; but we can change how we judge earnings. This isn’t an issue of politics; it’s an issue of appreciation. We can change how we assess what a modest wage means.

We can use our imaginations to remember and hold in mind all that is not quantified in a salary – in our lives and in those of others; all the degrees of intelligence, care, dedication, empathy and creativity that may be present, undetected by the blunt aggregated marker of a wage.

Daniel Ridgway Knight, Coffee in the Garden

However tempting it might be to settle the question of the value of humans in stark financial terms, the truth remains beautifully and redemptively more complicated – as we must realise as soon as we’ve spent some time around a person at work and got to know what sides of their character their labours will call on through an average day. We’ll then have no option but to reach a dauntingly complex conclusion: we are not what we earn.

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