Should We Teach Our Kids That We Get Dignity from Work?

Should We Teach Our Kids That We Get Dignity from Work?

Dignity of work. It’s a phrase we’re seeing and hearing more frequently. Particularly in the realm of politics and policy.

When policy wonks or politicians use the phrase, I’m never quite sure what they mean. Typically, they have some political agenda, making it hard to know if they’re really on the side of the worker.

So, when Seth Godin, the guy who believes workers should be linchpins, not cogs, released a podcast episode titled “On Dignity,” I was curious. I wanted to know how Godin would define dignity, and whether he would tie dignity to work.

From Godin’s perspective, we have dignity by virtue of having potential as humans. More importantly, that means we don’t need to earn our dignity. We don’t need to work to have dignity. We have dignity, simply by being human.

This idea of naturally occurring dignity is what the politicians and policy writers seem to miss. In fact, “dignity of work” implies that dignity comes from work. That to work the right kind of job is to have dignity. Making the opposite also true — to not have work is to lack dignity.

The other thing that Godin explores on the podcast is the notion that some employers demonstrate power by stripping employees of dignity. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed this. We’ve seen employers, or managers, deny vacation time without any reason. Refuse to let a sick employee leave early. Or, thin the ranks by firing people, rather than laying them off.

These types of actions occur every day. And, until I heard Godin’s podcast, I hadn’t considered that these actions, while demonstrating power, also make people feel as if their dignity is earned — earned by showing up and playing by arbitrary rules.

Once we tie dignity to work, we’re at risk of becoming overly fearful of losing a job, for losing a job costs us our dignity. And, we subject ourselves to being mistreated by bad employers.

This can’t be the “dignity of work” we want for our kids.

I imagine those using the phrase “dignity of work” mean well. They’re not intentionally creating harm. Maybe, they just lack perspective. But, if we’re not careful, that phrase will really catch on. And, people will simply equate dignity with work. We shouldn’t let that happen.

Too many of us already allow our jobs to define us. We cannot afford to also believe that a lack of work is a lack of dignity. That without a job, or the right kind of job, we’re not entitled to respect. 

In the Future of Work, automation and AI are expected to cause significant disruptions in the labor market. Our kids will likely experience the greatest amount of disruption. So, it’s important that we don’t allow today’s politicians to define dignity for tomorrow’s workers. Our kids shouldn’t enter the labor market thinking that dignity is earned through work.

So, what to do? Well, we’re already teaching our kids about empathy. And, dignity is directly related to empathy. In fact, without seeing the inherent dignity in our fellow humans, it’s hard to be empathetic.  So, as we teach our kids empathy, perhaps we should also teach them about dignity. 

We should help them understand that it’s our potential as humans that gives us our dignity. That we need to give our fellow humans at least a modicum of honor and respect, simply because they’re our fellow humans. And, perhaps more importantly, we should stress that we don’t acquire dignity from our employer. Rather, we show up for work, owning our own dignity. 

Teaching these lessons now, will help ensure that our kids thrive in the Future of Work. And, they’ll have the right mindset to help others thrive as well. Separating dignity from work now, increases the likelihood that our kids, tomorrow’s policy makers and politicians, will see work through a different lens. Maybe, they won’t even use phrases like “dignity of work.” Rather, they’ll say things like “the dignity of humanity.”

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