Remember the sense of pride you had when you got hired for your first job? Even if the uniform was silly or the job was far from glamorous, there was such a sense of independence in being able to exchange your time for money and provide for yourself. This is the kind of demeanor that America was founded on, one where hard work and financial independence was held in the highest esteem, regardless of the line of work.
But our country has undergone a huge cultural shift recently when it comes to valuing the dignity of hard work. And nothing brings this fact to light quite like the latest news involving former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens.
Recently, a woman checking out at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey noticed that the man working at the checkout stand next to her looked familiar. Recognizing him as Elvin Tibideaux, the loveable son-in-law of Cliff and Claire Huxtable from the beloved 80s sitcom The Cosby Show, the woman took a picture and posted it to social media. As is typical in our society, it didn’t take long for the picture to make the rounds as social media users “shamed” the actor for working such a “menial” job. But the story took an interesting turn.
While much of the Twittersphere was all too eager to insult Owens, many actors came to his defense. Terry Crews, who is both a former NFL player and a successful actor, tweeted that after his NFL career, he worked as a janitor sweeping floors. Other actors came forward to share their personal stories as well. And instead of the situation turning into yet another example of how our country’s culture has gone astray, it turned out to be a lesson about the dignity and importance of hard work.
All Jobs Matter
When Owen’s first saw the pictures, he was devastated, and rightfully so. In the 80s, The Cosby Show was one of the most popular on the air. But the thing with acting is, it isn’t always consistent. And while you may be a star in a leading role one day, you may be out of work the next. And like all good things, The Cosby Show eventually ended.
Since its departure from the airwaves, Owens has struggled to find consistent acting work. In fact, he says that he has not had an acting job that lasted longer than 10 weeks since the popular show ended. He taught acting at Yale briefly before taking smaller roles here and there. But with kids in college and a household to support, he needed to find something consistent.
Trader Joes was perfect because his supervisors allowed him the flexibility to audition for acting gigs while still holding down a steady job. Sure, it may not have been as glamorous as working on a television show set, but everyone has to support themselves. And there is not, or at least should not be, any shame about taking a job to support yourself.
When the pictures went viral, Owens was devastated. Suddenly, he found himself in the limelight for something as silly as having a job. And as embarrassing as it may have been for him, he didn’t let it get to him for long.
As actors and others began their outpour of support, Owens used this experience as an opportunity to start a national conversation about the way we view work in this country. As he put it, he has used this event to reevaluate, “the idea that some jobs are better than others.”
Owens told Good Morning America:
“There is no job that is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a résumé and on paper. But, actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”
Comparative Advantage and Specialization Create a Thriving Economy
Owens’ comments are absolutely correct. While we might all love to have the prestige of being a doctor or a lawyer, not everyone is bound for those careers. And if we did have a society filled with only doctors and lawyers, our society would crumble.
Specialization and comparative advantage have fueled our economy by diversifying it. Imagine if everyone were a doctor, we might have access to health care, but how would we get anything else accomplished? In order to eat, for example, we need farmers to grow crops and harvesters to harvest the crops. We need grocery stores to sell the farmer’s produce, which means we need staff to work at the grocery store. Imagine if farmers decided not to grow crops anymore because they felt that line of work was beneath them? It would matter very little if we had a population of great doctors if everyone was starving.
The same could be said of any number of sectors. We need all kinds of individuals willing to take on all sorts of different roles in order for our economy to thrive. That means that every single job in this economy is just as important as the next.
In the wake of the viral photo, Owens has been offered acting gigs from the likes of Tyler Perry and others. But his response to these opportunities was astounding. He said:
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting acting jobs from this event… I wouldn’t mind getting auditions, I don’t mind if people call me in to try out for things due to what has happened, but I actually wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone giving me a job because this happened. I want to get a job because I am the right person for that job.”
Owens’ focus on receiving a role on merit and not out of pity is exactly the message our country needs to hear right now. And while this entire experience may not have been a pleasant one for him, it has taught the entire country to not only stop job shaming but to take pride in their work. It doesn’t matter if you are an artist, a judge, or a cashier. What really matters is that you pour your heart into your work and do the best possible job that you can.