Defining the Value of Work and the Worth of an Individual

Understanding the role of essential workers in a pandemic

Ranjani Rao
5 min readJun 19, 2021


pair of blue gloves
Photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash

When I meet people for the first time, I dread the inevitable question that surfaces sooner or later — what do you do? Most often, the question seems to be a non-obvious way of asking — who is your employer?

As a young woman, I considered it to be a grown-up version of the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” posed to children.

The question had terrified me as a child since I could not reply with a single inspiring, if impossible, one-word answer like “astronaut”.

And now, as a bona fide adult, I still cringe at the question. This seemingly innocuous but loaded inquiry is a quick way for people to judge your worth as a person by estimating the monetary value of the work you do.

The bad news is that this system of ranking people based on their income has remained unchanged for years. The good news is that the pandemic has helped to shift perceptions of the value of workers based not on their salary but on what they contribute to society.

Pay, prospects, and prestige

I moved to Silicon Valley at the peak of the boom in the late 1990s. Rapid advances in technology guaranteed a free ride to riches for those who flocked to the new gold rush in California.

The only caveat was that you needed to be a techie to reap these rewards. I was not. I was beginning my career as a research scientist at a well-established pharmaceutical company.

When people asked “Where do you work?”, I would reply with pride, expecting recognition of the company name. I was surprised when they asked “What’s that?” instead in response.

The company I worked for had been in business for more than 100 years and had a global presence

However, it was not a start-up with a “” in its name. It was not planning an initial public offering. It did not offer me stock options that could be leveraged into a Porsche. I would never be able to boast of or even contemplate a rags-to-riches story like the techies I encountered in my social circles.



Ranjani Rao

I write insightful personal stories about my scientist, immigrant, travel life. 4 books Share memoir journey