Today’s post could have become a full-blown research project, but it’s more rewarding at this stage to publish it as a chain of ponderings that you in turn can help parse. This particular chain emerged from some comments that my sister Emily jotted on an early draft of my last post, the Gifted Sensor.
See, as I parsed the differences between MBTI sensors (S) and intuitives (N) (here’s a quick overview if you’re not familiar with those concepts), the work of famed sociologist C. Wright Mills said came to mind, and I jotted it in the draft: Mills once defined blue collar workers as those who manipulate objects while white collar workers manipulate symbols. So it sounds an awful lot like those who have great skills in the concrete—i.e., strong sensors—are born with a preset destiny to earn less socioeconomic status??
And that blue text? My sister filled that in. I had left the sentence incomplete, and she took the opportunity to direct our thoughts. So help us out here, friends: where is Emily’s insight more or less applicable, and what are the implications?
I’ll use the rest of this post to share where I think this leads.
It seems to me that Mills’ blue collar workers’ manipulation of objects is a essentially an analogue for sensing work, as sensors thrive in physical reality, while his white collar manipulation of symbols means work in which an intuitive’s preference for the abstract and theoretical comes in handy.
And in our society, blue collar workers are generally given lower social status than white collar workers. This is a generalization, of course; I’m reminded of a friend who works as an analyst for a federal agency who told me once that she really should have become a plumber and that maybe it wasn’t too late. They make good money, after all, and don’t have to sit at a computer all day!
Despite this observation, she didn’t quit her analyst job and become a plumber. I didn’t ask her why, but we can imagine several potential reasons that any given analyst wouldn’t do this: because she actually would rather sit at a computer than lie prone in cramped spaces; because she prefers to wear suits to overalls; because she doesn’t have the remotest interest in learning about pipes; because she lacks the necessary manual dexterity; the analyst’s hours are better; and so on. Oh yeah, and here’s a big one to consider: that doing analytical work is easier for her than manipulating pipes.
If you’ll allow for a side note here: my friend is actually an ISTJ. Many people with a mild preference for sensing hold what I’m describing as “intuitive jobs.” Remember this is on a spectrum: my friend is a moderate S who likes manipulating facts (as opposed to ideas) but does it by abstracting them on paper, as compared to a strong S who likes manipulating actual objects. A moderate N might be an inventor whose ideating is only one step away from physical application, while a strong N always wants to be 30,000 feet above the physical world, the better to get a broad view of systems and narratives; this is the archetypal college professor or talking head.
At any rate, whatever my individual friend’s motives, isn’t it likely enough that any given government analyst chose that job over the potentially more lucrative but physically taxing career of plumbing because we award more status to the analyst?
If so, what are the implications?
This in turn made me want to ponder the nature of our economic system. Long before capitalism, when we lived at the subsistence level, there was no surplus to sell for profit. Then the lords kicked the serfs off their land, and entrepreneurship was born. It was the only way for those ex-serfs to survive! And because they were now subject to the pressures of competition, they had to rely on ideas to out-compete the other guy. Those ideas, in turn, manifested as technology. This was not merely the way to wealth; it was necessary to survive. So the status we afford technology surely has its roots in the nature of capitalism.
Once toilets had been invented, plumbers were born. And they did useful work, but they didn’t create surplus wealth: rather, their services require that we spend our wealth to maintain what we have.
This suggests two separate ways of contributing to quality of life. We can do so by devising something new that resolves a problem, changing the status quo; or we can do the maintenance work for that status quo. This points to one obvious tangent regarding solar panel developers vs. the archetypal Trump-voting Appalachian coal miner…
…but I want to go in a different direction, so put that aside for a moment. Here’s my question: under our advanced capitalism economy, what economic purpose do most ideas primarily serve? Is it quality of life?
As far as I can tell, the answer is frequently no. Quality of life is merely a hypothetical secondary goal. The primary goal is profit, because that keeps the capitalist engine turning. To be sure, when Alexander Cumming invented that S-shaped pipe that keeps stinky sewer gas out of our dwellings, he was doing it from a quality of life perspective as much as a desire to profit from his patent. But as we solve more and more of our most pressing quality of life problems, we still need the capitalist engine to keep churning. And so we depend increasingly on the construction of artificial needs. There’s even a whole profession devoted to this: advertising! The advertiser’s job is to make us think they’re selling us a quality of life increase, but the actual psychological effect of their work, if successful, is to create in you a need you didn’t previously have, which strikes me as the opposite of a quality of life increase.
On the broader subject of marketing and related innovating careers, Emily chimed in: [These people are] stressing out the sensing people who are already fully capable of doing “concrete tasks” just fine the current way. We don’t need new apps to make grocery shopping easier! It’s just another abstract thing I have to learn about.
Marketing is, of course, a highly intuitive job, all about abstractions. It’s also a high status one. Sure, we may get annoyed by commercial breaks—but we also talk about Super Bowl commercials as though they’re some kind of pleasurable art form, and the show Mad Men was a major hit.
Meanwhile, as we try to get as big a share of the surplus as possible so we can meet our artificial need for iPhone n+1, we have less time and energy to meet our more basic needs. You know, those needs that we had that date all the way back in the subsistence era: things like food and child care.
And now we come to the other group that Emily immediately recognized as being stuck with less status because of their focus on sensing work: women! See, another category of sensing work is what’s been known as “women’s work.” When the lords kicked out the serfs, they didn’t keep the serfs’ moms and wives and make the serfs start paying them for their contribution to the harvest. Women just kept doing the essential work they had always been stuck doing without pay. It’s not like children can pay for their moms’ labor.
And those concrete, present-focused jobs that are so basic to the maintenance of our lives didn’t go away. Someone’s had to do them all along; those people have generally been women. Women still struggle today to balance their desire for a chance at status with the fact that this work still needs to get done and no one else is really stepping in to do it, as I’ve discussed before.
So even as some women (especially intuitive women) have been freed somewhat from this work, are we giving those who are doing this essential sensing work their due? I say we’re not.
Let’s say our intuitive woman has a husband and they decide to have a kid. They consider the possibility that one of them become a stay-at-home parent, but each earns (just barely!) more than sum of the cost of childcare and the Blue Apron subscription they’ll need because neither of them has time to think about meals and go grocery shopping.
But what just happened here, economically speaking? The work of caring for the child and doing the grocery shopping—traditionally female sensing labor that did not contribute (at least in the eyes of economists) to the economy—now it magically does! Because while caring for your own family doesn’t add to GDP, caring for a stranger’s does!
This is why I assert that we don’t give this kind of essential sensing work its economic due, and this is where the wages for housework campaign of the 1970s came from, and is one of the arguments in support of the modern idea of universal basic income.
Even if watching someone else’s kids can get you a paycheck, however, it’s still not high status work. We live in a system in which value is represented by profit, which tends to be created by the intuitives and flows downhill to the sensors. But sensing work is at the foundation of the pyramid of our needs. We look down on it from our perch at the top of the pyramid, but without it, we come crashing down.
Consider our intuitive woman’s husband: what if I told you that he’s actually an ESFJ? He likes the idea of addressing people’s basic, concrete needs, doing work with his hands to maintain a household, whether it’s fixing the plumbing himself or making dinner or changing diapers and engaging the baby.
Unfortunately, he knows that even if he’s willing to take the paycheck hit in the present (only a small one once we cut out the cost of childcare and Blue Apron), none of these things build his resume. They don’t afford him status. He’s terribly afraid that without status, he might not be able to get his future needs met. Who, he fears, will hire a stay-at-home dad at age 45 when it’s time to pay for baby’s college? He couldn’t possibly compete with all those intuitives have been out there abstracting all these years.
It’s not exactly great for his quality of life.
All these people are keeping the present together. They are meeting real needs, not creating new ones. They don’t drive the wheel of capitalism, but they are the foundation on which that wheel is built.
Frankly, if it weren’t for the sensors in my life, I don’t know where I’d be. Ask anyone who is trying to work with me on executing a complex operation in concrete space (e.g., cooking) to come up with words to describe me, and “gifted” and “capable” are not likely to be on that list. When my toilet overflows, I’m useless, but the Latino maintenance man who shows up to save the day too often gets looked down upon. When the researcher at NIH working on genetic medicine gets sick, it’s the nurse (perhaps even more than the doctor, who is likely to be a moderate S to the average nurse’s strong S) who gives her what she needs to get back to health.
It all comes back to quality of life, and how we contribute to it.
Maybe we poor ex-serfs are forever doomed to live in a system where quality of life must always be a secondary focus, pursuing profit until the effort destroys us. Maybe there’s another way; that’s what socialists and other heterodox and visionary economists believe, at any rate.
But that’s the subject for another post. For now, we can at least think about status and respect, and how and why we award it. Because where we bestow our status suggests our priorities. Why don’t we spare some for the people who keep us fed, who keep us warm, who do the unglamorous work of keeping society churning?
To return to my star metaphor: while we’re all busy admiring those intuiting supernovae, the Sun is a sensor of a star—keeping the practicalities of life plugging along reliably.
And to this Emily adds, Can I get a Hell Yeah! 😉
Image credits: sasint, Alexas_fotos, Bhakti2, caio_triana