Time to Get a Real Job? How Does Professional Status Create a Platform to Target the Poorest?

28/05/2013 15:26 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 10:12 BST

Having spent three years working for a small charity, running a support and signposting service for young people, I decided the time was right to move on. During my final week, one of our volunteers approached and asked (very sweetly and with the best of intentions) "So, is it time to get a real job then?".

I managed (uncharacteristically) to bite my tongue and laugh it off. Speaking to the rest of my team about it later that day, we all had a similar reaction, a kind of humoured frustration. It seemed strange that our volunteer, clearly enthusiastic and committed to the values of our organisation, perceived our roles as unreal - as somehow less legitimate, valuable or worthwhile than a perceived benchmark.

This opinion however, is in line with (and may have been mediated by) broader ideas and attitudes. The volunteer might have had a number of things in mind that drew a distinction between my role and a "real job". We are used to evaluating professional positions in terms of the salary they command, using this as a proxy for responsibility and professionalism. As such, those working for organisations where values are placed above profit and salaries are easily dismissed as naïve or out of touch with reality. However, although correlated, levels of remuneration actually reflect a broader perceived hierarchy of status of occupations, which may influence how people evaluate their "realness".

Robert Chambers assessed the ideas, values and behaviours which are dominant and rewarded both within and between professions. He suggests that the highest status is reserved for professionals that work with things (or people as though they were things), whereas occupations concerned with people as people were considered lower status. As such, within the medical profession surgeons (who anaesthetise patients in order to treat them as objects) are regarded above GPs who are considered above nurses (who attend to the human care of patients). Similar hierarchies can be seen between professions, for example academically physicists hold status above economists, who are in turn regarded more highly than social scientists.

These perceptions can be observed throughout the professional world where, although highly trained, experienced and despite often holding high levels of responsibility for human lives, those working with people as people are regarded as somehow lower.

Since the 1980s and the dawn of the liberal economic era, the assertion of economic growth as a target rather than a means with which to secure welfare has added a new dimension to this hierarchy. Roles which combine an interest with things with the generation of profit have come to the fore. The increased status of roles which deal with finance and credit as removed from their ability to meet human needs, has allowed the recognition (and associated financial rewards) of bank executives, traders and financial speculators to skyrocket.

This hierarchy of status has been further reified in the UK by the agenda of the current coalition government. In capping public sector pay and benefits, while simultaneously easing corporation tax, the coalition sent clear message about the comparative value of the private sector. These actions are damaging, but it is the rhetoric used to justify them and curry public acceptance which is most diminishing to professions in the public and third sector.

In cutting benefit payments, David Cameron referred to a small minority of claiments when stating that "you should be trying to work". By claiming that he could live on £53 a week (something he will never have to do), Iain Duncan Smith disregarded the hardships of many peoples lived realities. In framing welfare reforms as about fairness and correcting a "something for nothing culture", George Osborne avoids the issue of growing inequality in the UK which prices many people out of the market for a decent standard of living.

In its' enthusiasm to portray the poorest and most vulnerable in society as lazy and undeserving, Conservative party rhetoric has also undermined the status of people who are most reliant on the services of the public and third sector. As such, the roles and professions of those in these sectors are reified as superfluous, misguided and disposable. Simultaneously, the voice of those who most value these services is undermined and robbed of legitimacy.

The problem with the way we perceive people working in roles supporting people is not the effect on their individual status or fulfilment. In my experience the majority of people in these occupations are confident in the value and worth of what they do. It is the effect on the perceptions of these professions as a whole, which acts as a platform from which to undermine recognition of the tremendous impact they make and dispose of services as superfluous. This is concerning for professionals who are aware that they are currently under more scrutiny than ever to deliver value for funders money. However, I had the privilege to work in one of these occupations for three years. It has left me certain beyond any doubt of the realness of working with people as people.