This is in part a review, and in part an extrapolation on the book “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton. This book offers a fantastic look at the things that make us anxious. It gives a rather gripping explanation of why people can feel scared and anxious. This book made me ‘furiously think’.
A Job As Status Indicator
Today, I would like to talk about just one aspect of this book. This is the relationship between having a job, and having status. ‘What do we mean by status?’ it asks. For most people, this means – a person worth knowing, or having an inner certainty that you are a good person. But how to judge? Alain de Botton eloquently explains how, in modern western society this has by and large, come to mean that you have wealth that you earned yourself. A meritocracy. Quoting Virginia Woolfe in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, the reason women had such low social status in the past, was because they had no access to wealth, and emancipation has led to the increase in the status of women in society – because it allowed them the ability to earn and own their wealth. And then he stops. And this is where I would like to take up the baton.
For a start, the idea of women having status if they have a job is, as far as I’m concerned, a problem for the middle and upper classes. In the past women who were poor always worked, and so did their children. There was no ability to depend on a husband’s wage – because it needed everyone to work in order to feed and clothe the family. Middle and upper-class people had the ability to have one – or no one(!) earning a wage and be able to support themselves. From the status of ‘I don’t have to work’ it moves rather easily to ‘I am unable to work’, particularly in an era that questioned the intelligence of women. The long fight in the late 19th and 20th century to assert that women were capable and able to work – and control their own finances, allows us to have what we do today. But it comes double-edged.
If you are not allowed to earn a wage – through legal or social pressure, then your status in that society cannot be wholly derived from the amount of money you earn – it can’t! But when status is linked to your job and ability to earn money, then the emancipation of women opens them up to the same status anxiety as the men. So a woman’s status can no longer be completely derived from her ability to run a home, or raise her children. She must also hold down a job to be judged a ‘good person’. Yet to contradict that, none of the idealisations of what a mother should be have changed. Unfortunately, instead of having a choice of a role to fulfil to be a ‘good’ person, she is forced to lug both these ideas around. She must be an exemplary mother who is always there for her children, AND also hold down (if possible) a full time job. She is double-anxious, and never able to win!
An Economic Tangent
Now lets look at the stay-at-home mum and the working mum through an economic lens. For a start, if she stays at home, her economic value to society is hard to calculate. Why? Because she does a job that is ‘unpaid’.
Let’s set up a hypothetical. Lets imagine a lady called Amelia. Amelia is a nanny. She earns a decent wage looking after children, (say $30ph). Her value to society, economically, is easy to calculate. She pays taxes. She provides a service. Her wages form part of the GDP. Now suppose Amelia gets married and has children of her own. Amelia now has a choice. (Or quite a number of them, but come along with me for the moment). Does she stay at home with her children, or go back to work?
Let’s say she stays at home. Suddenly, her wage is not part of GDP. She pays no taxes. She has become, in effect, economically invisible – or even a liability (someone has to support her). GDP goes down. And yet, she is still doing exactly the same thing as before – looking after children. Maybe even the same amount of children. Her real worth has not been reduced. She is still doing the same thing. OK – she probably will have the economic penalty of no super*, which can be significant, but the things she does have remained the same.
Let’s take the other hypothetical: She goes back to work. Let’s suppose that she prefers to hire a nanny for her children. How does this affect the GDP? Amelia’s wage is still part of the GDP, and now, her nanny’s wage is part of the GDP. So GDP goes up. More taxes are paid, more people have work. But…there is no net benefit for Amelia doing this (apart from super contributions). She won’t get ahead. Her wages go to pay someone else’s salary. Yet the net ‘wealth’ of the nation has gone up.
Of course a real Amelia probably wouldn’t necessarily do these things. She might work part time, and get a family member to mind her children. Or she may put them into childcare, or her husband might stay at home if his wage is less than hers. There are countless ways a real Amelia would act.
But this wasn’t so much about a real Amelia. It was more about pointing out how bad an economic measure such as GDP or job status can be in determining a person’s worth in society.
So for all those Mum’s out there – you are doing a great job – however you choose to do it. Status anxiety is hard to ignore – but try not to take on the double whammy. (Almost impossible – but only almost!) Just remember that society, at large, is out to make you anxious about your status and self-worth. But like Alain de Botton points out – the choice is yours to decide what is worth worrying about, and what is not.
*After having a think about this, I will add that she would also have the ‘bonus’of a higher income – with super being put away for herself and her nanny when she is working, if they’re on the same income, she would actually have a negative income – she would lose money by working.