‘Respect’ was a motif of the successful electoral campaign by Germany’s social-democratic leader, Olaf Scholz, in 2021. What’s at stake?
‘So, what do you do for a living?’
The fact that we take so much interest in one another’s occupation suggests that a job is much more than just a source of survival. Occupation serves as an important component of individual identity. Imagine one’s unconscious reaction to discovering the person one has just met is a professor of physics as against, say, a full-time carer. One is likely automatically to place the stranger on a social hierarchy, depending on their occupation.
Not many countries conduct large-scale surveys of how various occupations are perceived within them, but the available data suggest prestige rankings are broadly similar across time and cultures. Four nationwide surveys have been conducted in the United States along these lines: in 1947, 1963-65, 1989 and the last in 2012. Participants have been asked to rank occupations based on social standing and over the course of almost seven decades these have been remarkably stable, at least at the extremes. Shoe-shiners, call-operators, rubbish-collectors and cleaners are concentrated at the lower end, while scientists, senior government officials, doctors and professors are some of the most respected occupational groups.
Similar surveys in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Japan, Philippines and Germany suggest the hierarchies are not much different. Of course, there are variations and many professions have experienced a change in status. But these seem more the exceptions than the norm.
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If we care about how much respect we receive, and jobs significantly affect how much we are respected, then we need to pay closer attention to these occupational hierarchies. Policy-makers and social partners are indeed slowly taking notice. The European Care Strategy issued by the European Commission in September acknowledges that care work is often undervalued. It urges European Union member states to offer ‘attractive professional status’ to long-term care workers to address staff shortages. Eurocarers, the European association of carers’ organisations, identifies ‘recognition’ for care workers as the first of its ten guiding principles.
Far less ink has however been spilt on concrete ways to uplift low-status occupations. Is increasing pay enough? Would campaigning for higher status help? Or is a more fundamental change required in how jobs are designed?
Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward: ‘respect’ and ‘social status’ are elusive concepts. Sometimes public appreciation and a change in job title can go a long way in influencing how a worker is perceived by themselves and those around them. Yet at other times even resounding applause isn’t enough.
At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic the way people around the world cheered healthcare staff was heartwarming. One would think all the attention such workers had received in the last few years would have compensated for any prior lack of appreciation. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise: nurses, healthcare assistants and others in the sector continue to feel undervalued, partly because of underinvestment in the conditions in which they work.
Stephen Darwall, a philosopher at Yale University, draws a distinction between ‘recognition respect’ and ‘appraisal respect’. Giving recognition respect to a person entails treating them as an individual moral agent. Workers receive recognition respect when they are seen not merely as means of production but as thinking and feeling individual human beings. In contrast with recognition respect, employees receive appraisal respect when their individual skills and talents are appreciated.
It is possible to have one without the other. X could have recognition respect for Y, treating Y as an individual moral agent, while thinking of her as lacking any admirable qualities. On the other hand, X could treat Y as a slave, while admiring Y’s efficiency at completing a particular task.
Moral philosophers generally consider ‘recognition respect’ as sacred and something indefeasible. One would rather be in a situation where one’s basic rights are respected but one receives no appreciation than where one is constantly told that one is an excellent worker but one’s basic rights are violated.
One could then argue that policy-makers, trade unions and other social partners should only be concerned with recognition respect. No job should treat the worker as less than human and violate their dignity. Appraisal respect might be desirable on other grounds: firms may want to ensure their employees receive appreciation for their work, so that they are motivated and work efficiently. In this view this would not however be a consideration of justice, strictly speaking.
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In reality, ensuring recognition respect is not enough. Not only do we want to be recognised as individual human beings equal to others; we do also want to be appreciated for our particular qualities and achievements. Imagine one works as a cleaner at an organisation where one is treated with dignity: decent wages and working conditions, fundamental rights protected, friendly colleagues. Yet workers in other roles are regularly praised for their achievements—hitting a sales target, organising a successful event or whatever—while one keeps the office spic and span with zero remark. Appraisal respect is thus a consideration of justice: it is possible to be treated with dignity yet have low self-esteem if one does not receive positive appraisal.
Ensuring workers such as those in the care sector enjoy ‘attractive professional status’ thus entails, among other things, giving workers adequate opportunity to receive appraisal respect. If a woman spends eight hours of her day cleaning or babysitting in someone else’s house and then performs the domestic chores in her own, she is deprived of the opportunity to undertake tasks which could allow her to win appraisal respect from others.
Of course, low pay and gender-based discrimination are significantly responsible for the low status of cleaners and care workers. But the lack of opportunity to receive appraisal respect in these job profiles is no less a concern.
There are various ways in which social partners and policy-makers can intervene to widen opportunities to receive appraisal respect, such as by providing training and improving worker participation in decision-making. A comparative study of two groups of Latina domestic workers in the US found that domestic workers who were expected to undergo training, follow strict quality standards and participate in worker meetings were more likely to be seen as worthy of respect—by themselves and others—than workers expected to do none of these.
In his book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, Richard Ocejo argues that jobs such as butchering, bartending and hairdressing are now viewed as more prestigious in parts of the US than they were a decade ago. This is because they are no longer thought of as being limited to slicing meat, pouring drinks or cutting hair. Instead, they are seen by many as legitimate art forms, requiring talent and years of training. Moreover, the modern butcher and bartender is expected to innovate and personalise their products to suit their clients’ needs.
Unfortunately, in many cases, Fordism and (then) ‘new public management’ made it more difficult for workers to receive appraisal respect. In long-term care, for instance, there was a deskilling of feminised work and a shift of power from frontline workers to management. Workers were often left with little autonomy and workloads consisting almost entirely of standardised, repetitive tasks, such as feeding, toileting, showering, dispensing medications and moving residents around a building. Such trends tend to exacerbate existing status hierarchies.
Focus on both
Addressing the low status and undervaluation of occupations such as cleaning and care work is important, in itself and to overcome staff shortages. Any serious attempt at addressing these issues has to focus on both recognition respect and appraisal respect.
Securing recognition respect for workers entails ensuring that they are treated with dignity, their basic rights are protected and they are guaranteed decent working conditions. A concern with appraisal respect meanwhile ensures workers have adequate opportunity to have their skills and talents appreciated.
Sanat Sogani is a PhD student of political theory at the Central European University, Vienna. His research focuses on the normative issues raised by occupational status hierarchies. He is currently pursuing a stage at the European Federation of Public Service Unions.