Chasing toddlers, keeping the house clean, and preparing meals is hard work. I learned this from experience during a six-month period when I was a full-time graduate student and a stay-at-home parent. The work was rewarding; I taught my child new words and had a few days of self-satisfaction when I actually made it through the list of household chores. My time as a homemaker did not, however, pay very well.
I gleaned several lessons from this period of my life. Most importantly, I learned that the wages I earn for work do not represent its inherent value.
All work that honors God’s design has inherent value; it is good work. Homemaker, engineer, athlete, artist, and janitor all have the potential to fulfill God’s purpose for the world and enhance the common good. The paycheck each of those vocations can earn is determined by the market and wildly varies, often independently of how taxing the work is to the person completing it and how important it is to society.
Pay is a measure of economic value, not inherent value. If the pay for a given job were determined by its contribution to the common good, then the athlete would likely be the lowest paid in the list above—society can exist without professional sports, though it might not be as fun. The homemaker, some might argue, should be the highest paid because he or she often directly contributes to raising the next generation to serve the common good. On a given day, the janitor might have a more physically demanding day than any of them.
Economic Value: Scarcity and Value to Others
Obviously, the price paid for each type of work above does not directly reflect the value of that work for advancing our society. It reflects certain attributes of the work. For example, there are many more people with the ability to be a janitor than a professional basketball player, therefore scarcity contributes to the athlete’s ability to earn a higher salary. The supply of engineers is limited because of talent and time necessary for education, which allows them to command a higher salary.
The economic reward someone is able to reap from their skillset also depends on how those skills are valued by others. There are few highly skilled theremin players in the world, but supply may still outpace demand for those particular skills. Economic value is subjective and, in addition to the scarcity of a good or service, depends on people externally valuing something.
Wages are not the only measure of economic value, though. For example, I was not paid to be a stay-at-home dad. Scarcity was on my side, since I am the only father of my children and my wife’s only husband. But there needs to be a demand from someone willing to pay for the service, which usually entails someone else gaining benefit from the work.
This is why the lack of a paycheck was not an indication of the absence of economic value. Although I did not get paid for my work in parenting and homemaking, the cost of replacing those efforts by hiring a cleaning service and placing my daughter in daycare was significant—at the time that cost was more than my family was willing to pay. There was clearly economic value in my work; it was part of the burden of my family providing a private good that we chose not to contract out. Since the price was too high to contract out, I substituted my own efforts for a nanny or daycare center. The economic value was masked by our choice, but it was not diminished.
When Inherent Value Trumps Economic Value
No matter what the price tag would have been for outsourcing childrearing and house cleaning, contracting this work out would not have produced the lasting satisfaction of doing the work of parenting myself. In fact, there is no paycheck size that will ever produce this kind of contentment.
Rather, the inherent value of my work was where the chief satisfaction lay. By spending time with my daughter, preparing meals for my wife, and finding new ways to kill germs and eradicate stains, I played a part in God’s restoration and redemption plan. By God’s grace, my efforts in these areas helped to make the world a little better and, though I do not feel called to be a homemaker in the long term, they brought real satisfaction during that season of life.
As we consider our work and the work of those around us, remember that the size of the paycheck does not equal a job’s value to God. Many very important tasks do not come with a wage attached. If we reduce the value of work to the size of its paycheck, we risk being dismissive of some people because of their work or we, ourselves, may miss out on some of the best work of our lives.
Editor’s note: What is the eternal value of work? Read more in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.
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