In a culture that prizes youth, beauty, and celebrity over just about everything else, what do we expect people to do when they are older and perhaps not as photogenic? This is one question that arises from the recent social media shaming of Geoffrey Owens, a former Cosby Show actor, who was spotted working at a Trader Joe’s.
In response, Owens went on Good Morning America and offered one of the most spirited defenses of hard work since Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, got on the talking-heads circuit. Owens told GMA’s, Robin Roberts:
This business of my being this 'Cosby' guy who got shamed for working at Trader Joe's, that’s going to pass...But I hope what doesn’t pass is this idea...this rethinking about what it means to work, you know, the honor of the working person and the dignity of work. And I hope that this period that we're in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity about that and a re-evaluation of what it means to work, and a re-evaluation of the idea that some jobs are better than others because that’s actually not true…Every job is worthwhile and valuable.
Indeed, by any objective measure, it’s not clear why parading around on a sitcom set acting as the butt of Bill Cosby’s jokes should be considered somehow superior to helping customers with their groceries. Sure, there are some skills that are rare in the general population, but that doesn’t mean the jobs that require them are somehow more worthwhile.
Still, it is one thing to want to be really good at a particular profession, to cultivate a rare gift—to be one of the best basketball players in the world or to be a great actor—but we live in a society that prizes fame for its own sake. Kids grow up wanting to be one of the Kardashians. Perhaps the real reason for the shaming of Owens is that he went from being famous to being just an average guy like the rest of us. If there were a reality show about working at Trader Joe’s, everyone would have thought Geoffrey Owens was the coolest guy around.
But Owens acknowledges he has also received an outpouring of support since the shaming incident. Tyler Perry even offered him a job, tweeting: “I have so much respect for people who hustle between gigs. The measure of a true artist.”
This is not surprising. As my AEI colleagues Karlyn Bowman and Eleanor O’Neil recently noted, Americans think of work as something more than just getting a paycheck:
When Pew asked working adults in a 2016 survey which of two different ways of looking at one’s job best described how they felt, 57 percent said their job provided them a sense of identity, compared to 40 percent who said their job was just what they did for a living. Large majorities of Americans (70 percent in NORC’s 2016 General Social Survey) say they would enjoy having a paying job even if they didn’t need the money.
But the paycheck still helps. Owens says he started working at Trader Joe’s more than a year ago to help make ends meet for his family. He touted the flexible hours the store offered so that he could still pursue acting gigs. It probably also helps that Trader Joe’s has a reputation for treating employees well, offering good benefits and opportunities for promotions, etc.
The store’s website tells potential employees: “We behave with integrity—we treat others as we would like to be treated.”
If that’s true, it makes you wonder why Owens didn’t look beyond Hollywood for work sooner.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.