How do you rate your own value? What do you think other people are using as their basis for valuing you? Too often, the answer is money – the paycheck and the bank balance. It’s not helped, in the UK, when our government keeps coming up with policies to reinforce this idea. The latest is that only non-UK citizens earning over £35k are to be allowed to stay. What this tells us is that they do not value lower income people, assume that the skills of the lower income person are nothing special. It doesn’t matter what you might do, or what you’ve done, it’s just your paycheck at the time of assessment.
People who start businesses, and creative people often start small and work up. What we’re worth financially today is no indicator of our potential financial worth in the future. No one would have picked JK Rowling out of a cafe when she was too cold to write at home, and seen the benefit she would single handedly bring to the UK economy.
There are so many reasons to resist making a person’s value dependent on their wealth. In practical terms, low paid workers are essential to both the production and consumption sides of the economy, and always have been. In a world of fat cats sat in plush offices, nothing gets done. So much work – especially the child raising, care giving work of women – is unpaid and unrecognised. A great deal of essential stuff in this country is undertaken by volunteers, with the charity sector dealing with the gaps in care, research and support for the vulnerable because neither government nor the private sector are bothering.
We’re taught to seek out signs to demonstrate our wealth and success – usually signs appropriate to our class and background. Every time we switch on a TV we’re exposed to a lot of images of how we, and our homes, cars, children should look. What we should be buying to keep up. Every day, through visual media and advertising we’re bombarded by images of what success looks like plus information about where to buy the appearance of success. There are plenty of people going into debt to do just that.
When it comes to messages from the government and the media, poor but happy is never on the agenda. Choosing to live lightly and happy isn’t offered. A worth in terms of kindness, generosity, gentleness, service to others, contribution to human knowledge and spiritual richness – these never come up. In terms of career worth, we always prioritise the ones involved with the big bucks for media attention. It’s rare to hear anything about people who’ve spent many years doing something small but essential really well.
Being rich can make you famous. We take on trust that the reason a person is rich is that they contributed something worthwhile. We don’t look at what they inherited or who bailed them out (and I gather Donald Trump’s claims to be a fantastic businessman could use some scrutiny on that score). We don’t ask who they exploited, whether they’ve destroyed any ecosystems, displaced indigenous people, cheated, lied, back stabbed to get where they are. We put the financial worth ahead of their behaviour.
How do we challenge this? The answer is in many ways to start small, by noticing other kinds of worth in the people around us and championing it. By questioning assumptions that tie worth to money. By not buying the things we are told we need to look the part. By daring not to manifest the agreed signs of affluence and success. By not measuring our own worth in terms of cash held and cash anticipated.