Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is my job worth doing?

I got to thinking the other day about various jobs people can have and whether or not they are worth doing.  By worth doing I mean that the job has a positive impact on society in general totally separate from the pay.  This certainly has some overlap with a job being hated or not by people at large but I don't think that is the best indicator.  The easiest examples I can think of from the two extremes are doctors and door to door 'lock in your utility rates' salespeople.  I think we can all agree that in general doctors bring a lot of positive value to society and make things better for all of us regardless of how much they are paid.  I think pretty much everyone would agree that most criminals fall into the 'not helping society' bucket but I think utility rate salesmen are almost as bad since they rely on selling an absolutely useless product to vulnerable people using lies, fear and high pressure tactics.  My measure is simple:  Would people be worse off if everyone doing the job in question simply stopped working entirely?  Working on the line in a factory may not be exciting or prestigious but we need people to do it and it would be a big mess if nobody did.

I can't claim that my jobs have always been great examples of helping people and making the world a better place.  By far the best job I have ever had and the one most worth doing is working Old Fort William historical site as a cooper.  I taught people about history, entertained them with stories and feats of axe throwing and build useful things with my hands.  Nearly everything about the job was good and I enjoyed it immensely.  I had a few jobs in university as a computer programmer and they were distinctly less worth doing but not terrible.  I built websites, helped people understand technology, took care of servers and other such projects.  Unfortunately because I was a coop student much of what I did was busywork and the support I got for my projects was often so pathetic I was able to get nothing of consequence done.  I certainly didn't make anyone's life worse but I contributed little.

A little lower down the chain were my jobs at 7-Eleven and Esso.  In both cases a cursory examination might suggest that being a clerk, pumping gas and restocking shelves is a worthwhile endeavour if a little lacking in excitement and challenge.  I rate these jobs a lot lower though because so much of what I did was actively harmful to the customers.  I sold an awful lot of cigarettes, pop, chips, slurpees, lottery tickets and chocolate bars.  I spent the bulk of my time and energy doing things that are flat out terrible for people.  Granted I also fixed tires and sold magazines too, which I see as being useful, so these jobs I feel like manage to be slightly above neutral.

I have also been a salesman.  Evaluating this is really tricky because people have such different ideas about lying and so many people actively hate salesmen and feel like they are leeches on society.  I feel like lying to people about products or misrepresenting what a thing can do is morally wrong.  However, I don't feel the same way about negotiation.  When haggling over price people say all kinds of things that aren't true and that includes the most virtuous shopper.  I feel like as long as both parties know the terms of the agreement and concur on the price then dishonesty like "Oh, I simply can't pay that much" or "Best deal today only, tomorrow this deal will be gone!" just aren't important.  Given that standpoint I think my days of selling mattresses were actually an example of a job worth doing.  I helped people understand the product, I legitimately did my best to guide them to the most appropriate products and I am absolutely confident that I made people sleep better and be more healthy because of the assistance I provided.  My second sales job selling medical appointments to executives was the opposite; I was simply trying to convince people to do things that were mostly completely unnecessary at best.  My entire job consisted of hassling people into buying things they did not need and then charging OHIP for those procedures they shouldn't have been getting in the first place.  That job justified the commonly held negative stereotypes of salespeople.

Now of course I should consider the job of unpaid writer, games designer and homemaker.  I think I entertain and educate people with my writing (I try, anyhow) and I maintain a home and do chores that need doing.  I certainly harm no one and much of what I do is very necessary work.  The glory factor is certainly a little lacking but I think as far as being worth doing my current job is right up there.

I imagine the scale as going from -10 to 10 where 0 is a job that just doesn't do anything helpful, 10 is a doctor and -10 is a mob hitman.

Cooper:  8
Homemaker/Writer/Layabout:  7
Mattress sales:  5
Programmer:  3
Clerk:  2
Medical sales:  -4

I don't know that this tells me much of anything really.  I think if everyone thought about jobs this way and tried to find jobs that were really worth doing by my definition we would have a much richer, happier and more productive society.  I suppose that most of the people doing the jobs that are negative have little enough concern for this metric regardless.


  1. When I think about my job in this context (seldom) I can't decide if it's useful or not. If the monitoring, discovery and signing of death warrants for insects in the grain supply helps Canada to market it's grain as a top quality product, then it's useful to farmers, buyers and consumers. But is the adding of chemical to kill the insects an actual improvement in a food product? Would insect parts be a healthier option? And knowing that some insects get through in their dormant stages or otherwise kind of makes my efforts a joke. Window dressing, really. As much as I like to believe I make a positive contribution I know I'm actually doing the job for the cash.

  2. In response to "Mom" (I obviously can't refer to you as "Mom" without the quotation marks) I think it sounds like the job you are describing is a net positive. Of course I don't know your job that well, so forgive any erroneous assumptions.

    You seem to wonder whether controlled application of pesticides is actually healthier than letting the insects be. But I think it's more likely that if we did not have controlled application of pesticides we would have indiscriminate application of pesticides. It would mean more pesticides in the food and a greater chance of creating pesticide resistant insects that would need stronger and stronger poisons to kill. It sounds like you deal with wheat stores rather than wheat farms, and I don't know what the differences might be, but I know that is precisely what happens on farms. Paying attention to insect populations and making targeted responses is a way to reduce pesticide use, not to increase it.

    Also, while a few insect parts probably would be fine, where there are insects there must also be insect excrement. Though I understand there are issues with the validity of tests that show pesticides are safe for humans, I would guess that the vast majority of insect excrement is toxic.

    Finally, all of this control of insects is not broadly because of the desire to increase the quality of the product. I think it is more because of the desire to avoid significant supply disruptions. A few insect infestations here and there might not cause big problems, but if they aren't monitored then at some point there will be some insects that get really out of hand and destroy large amounts of wheat.

    Obviously with international markets being what they are any shortage caused by insects run amok would be temporary, and I don't think we'd have a food crisis. But any kind of food supply disruption is always going to hit the poorest people the hardest, and Canada suddenly wanting to buy a lot of wheat could end up raising prices for other people who can't afford to pay them.

    I don't know how realistic a massive wheat loss scenario is with the current spectrum of wheat eating bugs found around here, but it's consistent with what has happened with insect problems historically all around the world.

    As someone who is pretty unconcerned about a few insect parts in my wheat and who has no personal stake in the matter, I would give monitoring and documenting the insect population in wheat stores an 8 (I'd give it a 10, really, since I think it's pure benefit, but just like at the olympics, you can't give someone a 10, what if the next person is better?).