Tuesday, December 23, 2008



I walked past a bank this morning and I saw the following advertisement in the window: "NOW HIRING - Join us and discover your true worth." Next to the phrase there was a picture of a smiling young female banker complete with suitpants, a wide collar shirt and a pin with the bank's logo on it.

After seeing that, I wanted to vomit.

Recently, I wrote a satire called EMPLOYEEBUILDER that mocked "employability criteria" for the 21st century. In that piece, I targeted many aspects of modern employment that bother me because they drain individual worth through unfair power relationships. Yet here was an actual advertisement that claimed employment could enhance a person's individual worth. Worse, the advertisement was not even facetious. And it assumed that a desperate young job-seeker might truly believe that working for a bank would "lead him to discover his true worth."

Discovering our worth as individuals is a lifelong quest. It is bold to suggest that there is an "objective standard" for "true human worth," but it is at least possible to find worth for ourselves. We feel worth only when we make decisions in life that accord with our conscience and spirit. We feel worth because we feel that we do things that come from our own hearts. Worth does not come from without. No matter how we experience worth as individuals, I can confidently say that worth does not come from slaving away at a bank.

Worth is an interesting concept. The English word "dignity" derives from the Latin word "dignitas," which means "worth." Dignity, in turn, means something more than "worth as monetary value." Commonly, we use the word as follows: "How much is my car worth?" It means nothing more than: "My car equals what monetary amount?" It has nothing to do with "dignity." But worth can also mean dignity; and dignity means much more. Dignity measures value by higher standards than dollars and cents. Dignity refers to human worth. It refers to the manner in which we live our lives. It sets borders for our behavior; and it prohibits us from acting in ways that contradict our beliefs. In our commercial world, everyone has a single end: To make money. But dignity imposes a barrier on the means by which we achieve that end. Some have more dignity than others. Some have less. It is challenging to develop and maintain dignity because we all want to achieve our ends by whatever means necessary. Yet I would venture that it is better to lose the end if undignified means are the only way to achieve it.

It took me many years to understand dignity. I left legal jobs because they made me feel undignified. I criticize lawyers because I feel that the very substance of their work is undignified. Even though many lawyers become rich plying their trades, I purposefully refrain from most legal work because I feel I would undermine my conscience if I practice it. Some call me lazy for doing this. I call myself dignified because I adhere to my principles. I have a sense of my own worth, and I will not sacrifice that worth for anyone's economic gain. If that leads to my poverty, then so be it. Again, it is better to lose the end if undignified means are the only way to achieve it.

Dignity comes from within. No employer can "bestow" it on an employee. In fact, to suggest that a bank can actually "confer" dignity on a petty financial associate turns the concept on its head. The path to dignity is an individual one. It is subjective. It grows from maturing beliefs and conscience, not from external rules and regulations. Yet employers care not for belief or conscience. They want productivity. To maximize productivity, they impose external rules and regulations. They supervise and observe to ensure compliance. They impose uniform behavior. More to the point, they manipulate and exploit employees' behavior for their own gain. The employee's labor is not his own; it goes to enrich the employer. For every $15 per hour I used to make as a legal assistant, I brought in $125 per hour for the employer. For every $35 per hour I used to make as a consultant, I brought in $200 or more per hour for the agency. Most employees, however, are so crushed under their own financial obligations that they think they are getting a fair deal from their masters. They do not question the gross inequality between their pay and their employers' gain. They simply do as commanded.

So is this what the bank means by "discovering your true worth?" Do you discover your "true worth" by mindlessly following bank protocols, putting on a uniform and responding to your employer's commands without hesitation? Do you happily show up to work each day to render "customer service" that ultimately inures to the bank's benefit, not your own? This not "worth." This is slavishness. Worth does not arise from blind obedience to an economically superior master. Worth arises from honestly questioning one's own path in life. Worth is a quintessentially individual inquiry; it does not depend on external rules. Yet here the bank's advertisement perverts the word, hoping to delude some poor unemployed sap into thinking he can actually improve his soul by slogging away to enrich the bank.

I say this: Enriching wealthy bank shareholders will do nothing to improve your soul. It will not make you feel dignified. Nor will it increase your own feelings of "true worth." Staring at balance sheets and reconciling overdraw complaints for $11.50 per hour will not give you a sense of purpose in life. After a while, it will probably make you feel that you have no purpose. And here lies the bank's ultimate insult: It insinuates that you can improve your spirit by doing something that requires absolutely no spiritual investment. It says you can find "true worth" in following commands for pennies. Yet your collective toils will really do nothing but allow bank shareholders to buy lavish gifts for their wives, go on vacation and pay themselves staggering holiday dividends.

Is this "true worth?" It sounds like a swindle to me. But this is the state of things in a society where people are so crushed under financial obligation that they are prepared to make any sacrifice to placate their inexorable creditors. When obligation rules, dignity dies.

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