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Beyond Work

Issue 262

Sarah Jaffe defies the notion that certain types of work shouldn't be considered work at all.

Matt Wasserman Mar 15

Economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that his grandchildren would work 15-hour weeks. Universal basic income proponents claim that robots are coming for our jobs (and maybe they are). But here, in the dystopian present, those of us fortunate enough to have jobs mostly work too much. Professionals work unpaid overtime; service workers take on second jobs. We work longer hours than our European counterparts and longer hours than the past generation.

Sarah Jaffe’s new book, Work Won’t Love You Back, examines the ideology and lived reality of work in the post-Fordist economy. Through a series of cases studies, bookended by an introduction and conclusion rich with theory, she explores how workers invest themselves in their jobs — and how they’re organizing for better working conditions across a variety of industries.

The first section chronicles those laboring in the helping professions and
the service industry, engaging in affective labor. Jaffe “follow[s] the labor of love as it moves from women’s unpaid work in the home through paid domestic work, teaching, retail work, and the nonprofit sector.” Whether raising children, helping clients or delivering “service with a smile,” each job requires workers to “put themselves second to the feelings and needs of their customers or charges.” Traditionally coded as feminine, such jobs are typically (de)valued accordingly.

The second section focuses on those working (or trying to obtain) what one might call “dream jobs,” jobs where the work itself is supposed to be your passion. Jaffe investigates how the “myth of the starving, devoted artist has leapt from art workers to unpaid workers, precarious academics, computer programmers, and even professional athletes.” It will surprise few to learn that when the work is supposed to be its own reward, the pay and working conditions are often lacking.

Jaffe’s background as a labor journalist shows. The prose is crisp and compulsively readable. And her approach is grounded not only in academic research but also in individual interviews.

Although the stories Jaffe tells are disparate, she synthesizes them as the story of how capitalism responded to two ’60s critiques. First, the critique of The Feminine Mystique: Women were isolated and miserable in their suburban homes/workplaces. And, second, the critique that work was boring. The first half of the book catalogues how women have been fully integrated into the workforce, albeit often relegated to care work. The second half describes how “do what you love” was recuperated as a corporate marketing and management strategy, forcing workers to profess to love their jobs. Rather than disrupting the accumulation of capital, capitalism has reconstituted itself around these twin critiques — as the gains have been redistributed relentlessly upwards.

A reader may object, with some reason, that software engineers making $200,000 a year at a workplace with air hockey tables and catered lunches have little in common with retail workers fighting for $15. While some fractions of the professional classes, like adjunct professors, have lost control of the conditions of their labor and joined the ranks of the precarious, not all have been so affected. Jaffe’s urge to synthesize and find the commonality of struggles is admirable, but the two halves of the book could belong to separate projects — and the introduction and conclusion could belong to yet a third book. This is a minor quibble, however, with a deeply engaging work.

Many of us, of course, have more to lose than our chains. Yet Jaffe convincingly insists that we all nonetheless have much to gain in uniting to throw off the shackles of work. In a lyrical and powerful introduction and conclusion, she urges us to abandon the idea that our jobs give meaning to our life or define us. Instead, she urges the reader to discover “the pleasures that are to be found in rebellion, in collective action, in solidarity” and to lay “claim to their time and their hearts and minds outside of the workplace.” This is perhaps less of a political program than championing the right to be lazy or fully automated luxury communism. But it would certainly be a good start.

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone
By Sarah Jaffe
Bold Type Books, 2021

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