Why is the non-essential worker paid so much? Insights from Covid-19

If there is one way to get yourself thrown out of a dinner party, it is to ask fellow guests how much they get paid and to justify it. The explicit comparison of income is generally avoided in contemporary society. Nevertheless, there is a degree of acceptance that pay is related to the importance of the job.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a new manner of job classification; namely between those considered essential and those deemed non-essential. This is not entirely novel, as the notion of key workers has been around for some years and is often used in the context of the provision of housing needs for certain workers.
A reasonable starting position would be to assume that a job being classified as essential demonstrates its importance and therefore would be higher paid. But this is clearly not the case as millions of nurses and teachers would testify. So how can this be reconciled?

A useful insight comes from the domain of consumer behaviour and in particular the work of the psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow. He developed a universal hierarchy of five basic levels of human needs and argued that it was only when a lower level of needs was being satisfied that an individual would attempt to seek satisfaction of needs from a level higher up the hierarchy. At the bottom level Maslow placed physiological needs, such as food and shelter. The level up from that was for the safety and security needs of the individual. Once these were satisfied Maslow argued that individuals would attempt to meet social needs, followed by the ego needs of status and self-esteem. The highest level of needs consists of self-actualisation.

What the Covid-19 pandemic did was cause a re-focus on the needs of individuals at Maslow’s basic levels. In March 2020, when concern developed about whether society would be able to meet the basic safety, security and physiological needs of its members (such as healthcare) the higher levels of consumer needs were sacrificed (such as a social life). Entertainment venues (higher level of needs) were converted into hospitals (lower level of needs), with a key example being the morphing of Manchester Central into a Nightingale Hospital.

This focus on basic levels of needs had a knock on effect on employment. Those “essentials” employed at meeting basic needs have typically been working flat out during the pandemic, whilst “non essentials” who tend to focus on meeting higher level needs have been unable to work, subject to furlough and struggled to maintain their incomes.

In the context of the pandemic it is easy to regard the idea of high paying “non essential” jobs as inappropriate. However, Maslow’s approach can also help provide an understanding of why high salaries might be justifiable. In contemporary Western society it is typically at the higher level of needs that consumer behaviour is focussed. Individuals want their ego needs of status and self-esteem satisfied and are prepared to pay big money to individuals and corporations who are able to do this. Branding provides a great example of this. Trainers bought from Primark for £10 and from Nike at £150 will both fulfil the same basic low-level needs of keeping feet warm and dry. The £140 extra for Nike is the consumer paying for something else altogether-status and self-esteem.

So when the pandemic is over, it is likely that consumers will return to attempting to satisfy their high level Maslow needs and non-essential workers’ incomes will return to previous levels. Nevertheless, maybe Covid-19 has provided a wake-up call to society to consider what its priorities should be. Perhaps a refocus on better meeting lower levels of human needs and on rewarding “essentials” is the way to do this?