Recognizing Work: Michael Sandel on the Consequences of Invisibility

Reading Time: 6 Minutes

(First in a series that explores the implications of Sandel’s work: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?)

Devaluing Work and Workers

“As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsize rewards on hedge funds managers, Wall Street bankers, and the professional classes, the esteem accorded work in the traditional sense has become fragile and uncertain.” 1

Under optimal conditions, the worker relinquishes concern for the self and dedicates her attention to the process that work entails. Traditions and institutions such as mythology, religion, and education inculcate an attitude of veneration for work and the attitudes and habits that give rise to it. Such tendencies are functional to the extent that they encourage work that benefits the worker and the community at large.

Lavishing outsized rewards on types of work that do not benefit the community implicitly devalues work that is beneficial. Profound disparities in the distribution of wealth between those who traffic in abstractions (e.g., “hedge fund managers”), on the one hand, and those who make, repair, or maintain things (i.e., “the kind of work the working class does”) on the other, may violate values associated with fairness, proportionality, and functionality. Although a Hedge Fund Manager can expect to receive revenues that are hundreds or even thousands of times higher than a Teacher, Electrician, or Plumber, for example, it would be difficult to defend the notion that his work is hundreds or thousands of times more valuable than that which is pursued by ordinary workers.

The Invisible Worker

“Work is both economic and cultural. It is (not only) a way of making a living (but is also) a source of recognition and esteem. This is why the inequality brought about by globalization produced such anger and resentment.” 2

While extreme wealth inequality may be problematic on purely economic grounds, Michael Sandel focuses on growing disparities that are distinguishable from – but at least as consequential as – those reflected in income or wealth. The absence of economic opportunity for workers cannot be separated from the loss of recognition and social esteem afforded for workers and “the kind of work the working class does”. Sandel captures the experience of many working people in our culture over the last several decades:

“You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored, you have to feel – and feel seen as – moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.” 3

The erosion of respect and recognition historically afforded to work and the kind of work the working class does reflects broader cultural trends that ignore the value of work and, in so doing, undermine the social and political stability upon which democracy is predicated.

“What working class voters want is…an opportunity to win the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value…Those left behind by globalization…sensed that the work they did was no longer a source of social esteem.” 4

While those who have gained from global trade, new technologies, and the financialization of the economy have not adequately compensated those who have lost out, to over-emphasize disparities in the distribution of income and wealth is to misunderstand the populist complaint. Although globalization and automation have not benefitted ordinary workers, economic hardship is only one aspect of their distress. Globalization and the credentialist “sorting machine” tell workers that the work they do is “less worthy of social recognition and esteem.”

Marginalization and Despair

Two trends underscore the bleak circumstances faced by workers and those without meritocratic credentials over the last several decades:

1. Giving Up on Work: The Decline in Workforce Participation

In 1971, 93 percent of white working-class men were employed. By 2016, only 80 percent were. Of the 20 percent that did not have jobs only a small fraction of them were looking for work. Most had simply given up. The abandonment of work was especially pervasive among those who had not been to college: Of Americans whose highest academic qualifications was a high school diploma, only 68 percent were employed in 2017. 5

2. Deaths of Despair

“…(G)iving up on work was not the most grievous expression of the damaged morale of working-class Americans. Many were giving up on life itself.”

From 2014 through 2017, for the first time in a century, life expectancy in the United States declined for three straight years. Mortality rates increased due to an epidemic of deaths caused by suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease. The increase in deaths of despair was almost all among those without a bachelor’s degree. “If you have a bachelor’s degree, your risk of dying in middle age is only one quarter of the risk facing those without a college diploma.” By 2017, men without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely than college graduates to die deaths of despair. 6

This increase in deaths of despair in this group does not correspond to an increase in poverty. Case and Deaton conclude that the marked increase in such deaths “reflect a long-term and slowly unfolding loss of a way of life for the white, less educated working class.”7

Resentment and Political Destructiveness

“Although the age of globalization brought rich rewards to the well-credentialed, it did nothing for more ordinary workers… (yet when) those waiting their turn in line complained about line cutters, elites called them racists, rednecks and white trash.” 8

Destructive trends in the political arena reflect erosion in the dignity of work that “left many feeling disrespected and disempowered.” Trump did best in places that had the highest rates of deaths of despair. Even controlling for income, the death rate among middle aged whites was strongly correlated with support for Trump, as was lack of a bachelor’s degree.

Attributing Trumpism to racism “ignores (the) struggle (of the working class) to win honor and recognition in a meritocratic order that has scant regard for the skills they have to offer.”

Re-Learning Respect for Work and Those Who Perform It

“The democracies must learn from the populist protests that displaced them…by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are entangled.”

Sandel reminds us that the diminished economic and cultural status of working people is not an inevitable consequence of social or economic trends but is rather the result of specific ways in which our society has been governed. Specific policies – reflected in our system of taxation, for example – encourage financialization of the economy by imposing high economic burdens on
workers and those who employ them. More generally, a relentless focus on consumerism and purchasing power emphasizes consumption and “invites us to think of ourselves more as consumers than as producers”. Even if those who have lost out as a result of globalization, automation and credentialism were somehow compensated for some of their economic losses (which they are not), they would still need to feel valued for what they produce or contribute, not what they consume.

“The true value of our contribution cannot be measured by the wage we receive, for wages depend…on contingencies of supply and demand. The value of our contribution depends instead on the moral and civic importance of the ends our efforts serve. This involves an independent moral judgment that the labor market, however efficient, cannot provide.” 9

Work is not only a form of activity: It also constitutes a primary means by which people feel recognized. Proposals that aim to increase the purchasing power of the displaced do little to address high levels of anger and resentment because that anger is in large part fueled by the loss of recognition and esteem.


  1. Sandel, Michael. The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? Farrar, Strauss
    and Giroux. New York. 2020.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, page 30.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sandel, page 199. Sandel cites Sawhill, Isabelle. The Forgotten Americans. Yale University Press, 2018. Also cited: Eberstadt, Nicholas. Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis. Templeton Press, 2016.
  6. Sandel, 203. Sandel cites and discusses the work of Barbara Ehrenreich: “Dead, White and
  7. Sandel cites the work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton: Deaths of Despair and the Future of
    . Princeton University Press, 2020.
  8. Sandel, 197 and 204.
  9. Sandel, 209.

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