How Much Should Bankers, Sanitation Workers, Chief Operating Officers, and Stay-at-Home Moms Be Paid?

It is a colossal mistake to judge anyone by how much they get paid or what profession they work in. But here’s the truth, some people are worth more to society than others. Unfortunately, our rank ordering of importance is really, really wrong.

One of the unintended consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is an awareness that some jobs are more meaningful and profound than others. Parents, untrained in educating young children, were forced to grapple with the disinterest, distractibility, and delinquency of household pupils (the “dark triad” of forced homeschooling). Can we retract prior snarky comments on how teachers have it easy with workdays ending at 3pm, one month winter breaks, and two month summers? Spikes of homicides and gun violence in 34 major U.S. cities (increasing 25% during the year COVID-19 held us hostage) begs for problem solvers who will tackle this public health problem. As we recalibrate what the world needs (rather than wants), I wondered why there is insufficient conversation on the incentive structure for choosing these careers over others. What lessons can be learned from a tour of existing career options and historical precedents?

Someone hands you a silver metallic dimpled business card. You notice their perfectly manicured hand. Resting above their fingers is an Audemars Piguet luxury watch. It is perfectly understandable to mistake this woman or man as someone important. Perhaps they are a financial analyst at one of the big eight investment banks. A management consultant at one of the big four accounting firms. Or maybe a compliance officer, management analyst, or someone whose job is to make sure that other people do their job. My (least) favorite are administrators hired to check up on adults who receive government resources – ensuring funds received are not abused. Understand: an entire industry of employees are paid money for the sole purpose of hoping someone else is not wasting money. Imagine if all of these people went on strike, right now? Would society be able to function? Would people be crying for mercy in the streets?

Who Is Expendable?

Ireland discovered who is expendable 55 years ago when every single bank closed. Banks remained inaccessible for 6.5 months. It was a protest against government  regulation and bankers wanted citizens to know that society depends on them. The banks knew society would collapse without them. Except, it didn’t quite work out that way. In 1966, there was no panic. Instead, Irish citizens formed their own currency. It centered on pubs. Irish bartenders knew who was and wasn’t trustworthy, and deals were hashed out over a few pints of ale. People wrote promises on pieces of paper, signed by witnesses. Physical items and services could be matched in value and then traded.

The world does not need bankers and we will certainly survive when those striking next happen to be social media influencers, public relations firms, chief information officers, chief operating officers, fundraisers, lobbyists, and whatever the hell marketing and industry strategists do.

Who is Underappreciated?

You know whose strike will induce great suffering? Teachers. Police officers. Plumbers. Carpenters. Nurses. Two years after the Ireland banker strike of 1968, sanitation workers in New York City tried the same tactic. All they asked for was a small wage boost and better pension plan so they can live near their place of work. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused. The governor learned a big lesson because when nobody picks up the trash, the streets turns to shit, literally. What banks do is invisible; what sanitation workers do is physical labor visible from your front porch. New York City streets filled with thousands of pounds of garbage, making it nearly impossible to walk without the stench of leftover food. The city begged for the workers return. But the sanitation workers stuck together with full knowledge of their worth, and waited until New York offered fair wages. It only took nine days for the city to relent (far different than the lengthy indifference to Irish bankers).

Matching Metrics to Values

Why do we wait until someone dies to celebrate their long arc of influence? We write obituaries to express our love and gratitude. We memorialize their contributions by naming schools, park benches, and scholarships after them. Our social relationships would be strengthened if we expressed these positive emotions when felt. Our rituals are mistimed. But the beauty of rituals is that they can be modified with updated belief systems. In terms of respecting the importance of professions, our beliefs require an overhaul. We do not provide salaries commensurate with people’s societal worth. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should use salaries as an indicator of a person’s importance. I don’t think we should be using prestigious colleges, universities, and degrees to determine a human being’s intelligence. I do, however, think we should explore misaligned priorities. Stay at home parents are paid nothing, and after a divorce, are financially punished (even if they happen to remarry). Teachers are the frontline of training youth to be independent members of society, while receiving little to no rewards for increasing societal progress and prosperity. Police officers, fire fighters, and military risk their physical health in uncertain, dangerous situations. Yet, they are often treated as a nuisance, an unreasonable cost, even an enemy to be vanquished. When member of these professions are absent, we become far more cognizant of our dependence and appreciation. Let’s not wait until these professions go dark. It will not be pretty.

Supporting Indispensable Linchpins

If you are leading others and possess the power to financially reward work ethic, determination, and benevolent influence, learn toward generosity. What is the point of becoming a wealthy society if we do not use these resources to incentivize meaningful prosocial behavior? The helping professions. The defenders of justice. Persuading the greatest minds to reconsider creating smartphone apps that monetize the limited attention of teenagers and instead enhance the greater good: continuing the 250-year search for cancer cures, reducing poverty, and educating and rehabilitating those among us requiring a supportive boost. We cannot control what other people think about our profession. What we can control is our reactions and next steps. Let’s use our resources wisely in supporting the linchpins of a healthy society.


Provocation Self-Focused

What would happen if you decided to go on strike? Who would notice? What would be missing in their lives? What important work would be left undone? If it feels as if few outside of close friends and family would grieve, what are you willing to do differently?

Provocation Other-Focused

How will you show appreciation for those whose efforts improve the quality of your life? Life-changing teachers, public defenders representing impoverished families, or whomever has given you a jolt of happiness and meaning. How will you join them in solidarity to be treated with respect and dignity, and receive sufficient compensation?


Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.