What does this quote mean? What does the speaker mean by "that's beneath them"? Is it true? "A large number of Canadian young people… don’t want to work in retail or hospitality or in the...

What does this quote mean? What does the speaker mean by "that's beneath them"? Is it true?

"A large number of Canadian young people… don’t want to work in retail or hospitality or in the service sector. They feel that somehow, that’s beneath them.”

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lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is indeed an idiom, which is a kind of metaphor.  A metaphor is a comparison in which something concrete is substituted for something abstract, which allows the reader to "see" something tangible and better understand the abstract meaning.  For example, if I say someone is "riding high," it means that this person is doing very well in life at something, with a connotation that this person may very well fall or more abstractly, may fail.  I am using this example in particular because we have a tendency in English (and quite possibly other languages with which I am not familiar) to use metaphors about height to show something is better than something else.  So, the literal meaning of your metaphor, as with most metaphors, does have a logical connection to its abstract meaning.  That is the whole purpose of a metaphor.

There are good reasons that we use height to show that something is better than something else.  On a concrete level, more of most good things is better than less of most good things.  A visual representation of this is accomplished with height, so that a higher pile of gold is better than a lower pile of gold, and a higher stack of hay is better than a lower stack of hay.  Similarly, "up" is good and "down" is bad, which is reflected in our posture, when we literally stand tall when we are happy and slump when we are unhappy.  This is why we speak of building a business up, not down, or building up our strength.  The business is not getting higher in a literal way, but we are making it better. Our muscles are not literally moving upward, but we are improving them.  There are hundreds of metaphors in English that reflect that higher is better and lower is worse.  Can you think of some?

Whenever a metaphor is encountered, you can be sure that it is a concrete representation of an idea the writer or speaker wants to get across to you with some sensory imagery.  Sometimes the logic is not immediately apparent, but it is our job as readers or listeners to ascertain what the elements of the comparison have in common.  In this case, something beneath someone means that person considers him or herself too good for the job.  Higher is better. 

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sciftw's profile pic

sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The quote is an idiom.  It doesn't actually mean a particular job is located beneath their current location.  It's meaning is independent of its logical interpretation.  It's a saying that has an entirely different meaning based on the usage of the phrase.  

What it means when someone says that in relation to a job is that the person thinks the job isn't worthy of their dignity or education level.  A person really could say it about any kind of job.  A person with his/her doctorate in English literature might consider it "beneath them" to teach middle school English, thinking that the job doesn't reflect their particular level of education.  

Many young people might say that kind of thing about a retail job because they feel entitled to a position with more earning potential or "class."  The thing that young people need to remember, though, is that because they are young and haven't had a lot of time to build experience, many of the more prestigious jobs are not going to be available to them.  If an employer has the chance to hire a manager and his two options are a 33-year-old college grad with related work experience, and a high school graduate looking for his first job, the employer is going to hire the better educated, proven employee.  The high school graduate might think the mail room is "beneath him," but he has to start somewhere.  The starting job location is often the bottom.  

Another way to look at it is to relate the phrase to a person's pride.  Someone might not be willing to take a boring, menial, labor-intensive job because they think it doesn't look cool.  That's their opinion.  They don't have to take the job, but someone less picky will take the job and start earning that money. 

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