ourEconomy: Interview

'The future sucks': why the work you love won’t love you back

Capitalism is making life worse for workers yet demanding more dedication than ever. Sarah Jaffe argues that there’s another way to live

Natalia Savelyeva
30 April 2021, 8.49am
Sarah Jaffe’s book encourages us to wake up from our capitalist trance
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CC (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twenty years into the 21st century, most people in the west want to have a job that they love. And, vice versa, we expect that this love – our inspiration, devotion and care – will provide us with deep fulfillment, even satisfaction with who we are as individuals and how we lead our lives.

Yet very often the opposite happens: the “love what you do” principle supports the exploitation and devaluation of labour, as well as cutting back on social protection and welfare guarantees. You can love your work, but as US labour journalist Sarah Jaffe reminds us in her new book, it won’t love you back.

In Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone, Jaffe draws on her deep experience reporting on workplace organising in the US to explore why love is not a necessary component of our jobs, how the whole idea of the “labour of love” brought us to the edge of global crises, and how we can change it for the better – by fighting for our rights as workers, and changing how our societies are organised socially, politically and economically.

What led you to problematise the way that some people love their jobs in your book, ‘Work Won’t Love You Back’?

I had crappy job experiences in all sorts of ways. In my first book, ‘Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt’, I wrote about workers – teachers, fast food workers – who were taking action at last. These stories often circled around care work and service work. And so I found myself thinking: “What is it about this idea that we should care about our job? Where did that actually come from?” In teaching and caring work, the expectation that you would care about that job is very clear – and it makes sense in a certain way. Whereas the idea that you would care very much about being a computer programmer might seem a little more strange. It became something that everybody takes for granted.

I recently read an article from 1981 about workaholics, and how this was a new problem. It’s about how everybody would just assume it is normal being a workaholic, loving your job, being there at all hours, being unhappy when you’re not at work. In 1981, this was so weird that people were calling it akin to being an alcoholic. And now we just expect everybody to be a workaholic. This is a thing that has a historical trajectory, it’s a story of change, and one that has an affect on millions of people’s experiences of their lives.

You start each chapter of ‘Work Won’t Love You Back’ with a story of a particular person who faces difficulties at the workplace, and then you go into the historical and social context of those occupations and show how we came to be where we are now. But the end of each of your stories is about empowerment. Why did you structure your chapters in this way?

Partly this is what I do as a journalist, it’s my beat: I cover labour struggles. But I also knew that people were going to ask: now that I am suggesting that loving your job is bad, what are we going to do about it? And the answer is embedded in the narrative of the book. Here’s what Anne-Marie [a worker at Toys R Us] did after she gave a place 30 years and then suddenly it was closing down and no one was getting any severance pay, and she was getting absolutely nothing. She went online, and got involved in this organic organising. It is really hard to be an organised worker in a workplace that’s closing. You can strike to get the place closed, but not to keep it open. So these workers at Toys R Us had to figure out: where can we have power? And how can we do anything about this?

There are a variety of things you can do, but they are all going to require collaborating, throwing up your hands and deciding to quit and get another job. And that’s what the labour of love discourse encourages us to do: to believe that if you have a problem at your workplace, the problem is you. You either should try harder to love it or you should just get another job that’s maybe a better fit. It’s like dating, right? Oh well, I went on a date with this person, it didn’t work out, so I’m gonna go find somebody that fits better. But it’s a workplace, it’s a little different.

I wanted to make sure that each chapter brings it back to what people are doing collectively, to point out that this isn’t an individual problem, and therefore doesn’t have an individual solution.

How did it happen that some people who initially couldn’t imagine themselves taking part in political action changed their mind later and got involved?

It depends. Some of these people had grown up in families of activists and they knew they would be activists too, whereas others had never thought of themselves in this way. Everybody gets there in a different way.

‘Necessary Trouble’ is about social movements in the US after the financial crisis – people who showed civil disobedience and got arrested, people who took part in confrontations that they never maybe thought they would have. It gets to a point when people take a risk, and once they’ve done it and realise that they can do it, it’s this huge confidence boost that changes you for life.

I don’t want to say that it’s always magical and good, but it is fascinating to see people who say: “Wow, this really changed the way I see the world”, after taking a risk.

Is “love what you do” more of an innovation, or has “love” always been present in work? Or maybe there’s something in between?

There are certain spheres of work – like women’s unpaid work and art – which for a long time we have assumed would be done out of love, passion and care. Teaching, and other jobs, were also considered outside of “real work”. And the fact that those jobs were not considered work means that the work ethic is not constructed around these kinds of work. In the US, this is one of the reasons why entire fields of work are just left out of labour protections, because they’re not really considered work. And that what happens as deindustrialisation kicks in.

‘Why Work Won’t Love You Back’ is mostly written and reported in the US, Canada and western Europe. As the factories are going away, shrinking, outsourced, the care and service sector rises in response. This is a shift from an economy focused on men’s manufacturing labour, which we had conceived of as work with all the good and the bad it entails, to care work, which should be made of love and not for money, because it’s not really work.

The same thing is happening with creative work. Instead of journalism, for instance, being considered a public service – that is, every town has a newspaper, and local journalists are going to be from that town, and they’re going to report on it, and they’re going to write about national politics through the lens of their local paper – it’s now people like me working in magazines, which are essentially luxury products.

The conditions in the industry have changed appropriately. This is what broadly I think happened. The changes in the work ethic come from changes in the shape of capitalism. Happiness at work starts to be a sort of necessary thing we should believe in. All of this is just pasting a happy mask on neoliberal capitalism, which is just getting shittier for most people actually.

As it’s getting worse, the pressure to like it increases. It is broadly agreed, for example, that Amazon is a terrible place to work, both for white collar and blue collar workers. There’s none of the Google and Facebook stuff that tries to make work fun and exciting. Amazon is just straight up: “It sucks to work here and you should like it anyway.” I hope it is the end, the zenith of the labour of love that Amazon is saying: “We are going to make you piss in bottles and like it.” This is the S&M version of the labour of love.

Is ‘loving what you do’ a privilege then? At least you do something that you like and that interests you.

In comparison with somebody who is working in a garment factory in Bangladesh that might collapse on you at any moment, it is pretty damn good, absolutely. I don’t want to go back to waiting tables, which I did for eight years before I became a journalist. And I don’t want to go work in an Amazon factory or an Amazon warehouse either. Nor would I want to go work in Amazon’s white collar offices, because those sound like hell.

The point is to get people to think about work in a way that doesn’t require us to love it. If we predicate our analysis of improving work on getting people into jobs they love, there is always going to be work that sucks, but which still needs to be done.

What are the things we could do to make work better? No matter what you’re doing, no matter whether you love it or not, there are things that people need and want that broadly make work happier: more autonomy, the ability to chat with the person next to you while you’re on the assembly line or while you’re picking up things in Amazon, and not get yelled at for it. Any of these things we can think of without needing to resort to, like, “Oh well, just get a job you like better”, because Amazon owns half the world, so just telling everybody to quit is not going to solve the problem.

We can set goals for work that aren’t based on making people love it, but are based on giving people fundamental rights and dignity and the ability to say “no”. The ‘love your job’ concept obscures the fact that work is not inherently lovable and people don’t work in order to find excitement and passion. People work because we’ve got to, and we usually try to find the least miserable way to do it, but that’s not always possible. So how do we make it less miserable for everyone?

We are not going to solve that problem by feeling bad because we have privilege. We solve that by taking solidarity seriously and understanding the ways that we are all exploited in their specificity, but also in the broad, general sense of creating value for capital – and maybe we should stop.

But there still will be jobs we love and jobs we don’t love.

There is a tension, a dialectic that we have to struggle with. We could imagine a world where the crappy work is distributed. What if instead of my job being to clean toilets every day my job is to clean toilets once a month and everybody has a toilet cleaning shift once a month? Rather than some subset of people just being sentenced to life doing crappy work we can actually divide it so that everybody gets a chance to do the crappy work – because everybody should. And then other work, some of which no longer needs to be work.

Right now we live in a world that’s designed to create value for capital. What if we didn’t?

Part of the challenge is that everything has been captured by a ‘job’. If you want to write a novel, you have to find a way to make it pay or find some other way to make a living and do it on the side. I’m obsessed with the community art centres from the New Deal period [during the 1930s Great Depression in the US]. They were in every neighbourhood, and that meant everybody could make art. You didn’t have to be Jackson Pollock and get paid for it in order for it to be accessible to everybody.

Instead of the art world being a thing where a handful of very lucky people get to make a living at it, and a handful of other people get to do really crappy, exploited jobs, but are still creative in some way, and then millions of other people are just locked out of it entirely, what if we distribute that differently too so you can have access to it and it doesn’t need to be your job?

Right now we live in a world that’s designed to create value for capital. What if we didn’t? What if we lived in a world that was designed to actually make people happy?

Here we are coming back to this is a global question: how can we change it?

That’s the challenge. It can definitely get worse, but the fact that it will change is not really up for debate. So the question that we have to contest is, in what direction should it change and for who? And that’s where talking about international solidarity matters. That’s where talking about all of these different types of work, and the way that people are in contact with each other around them, matters.

The main characters in your book are all women, except one man, a programmer. Why is your book predominantly about women?

I didn’t really do it on purpose – although at some point, I just decided to commit to it. The gender character of all of this labour is bullshit. There are plenty of men who are perfectly capable of doing caring labour. And there are plenty of women in programming, although not as many as we would like. What I’m talking about is a change in the workplace that has largely happened as women went into paid work, so in that sense it is a story about women.

All the people in your book were told at some point: ‘What you do is not a real job, so why do you want it to be paid? Why do you want your rights to be protected?’ I’m wondering how this devaluation connects to ‘loving what you do’ and the gendered nature of the jobs you describe.

This devaluation is the characteristic of women’s work, right? It’s this tautology: we are women because we care and we care because we are women. Women’s jobs are paid less because they are women’s jobs. When large numbers of women move into a sector, its wages go down; when large numbers of men move into a field, wages go up. Even in fields like nursing where it’s still 90% women, male nurses get paid more. The devaluation goes way back to the designation of women as the people who would be doing jobs in the home that we aren’t going to call “work”. But it is work, and should be valued as such – and not treated as though it’s just some natural thing that comes very easily to women, because it doesn’t.

How do you see the future of labour of love?

Hopefully we can destroy it. I feel like this book came out at the right time. Over the last year, workers in the non-profit, journalism, art and museum sectors, have been organising like crazy. So in a lot of these different places where we see this narrative about loving work deployed really intensely, there’s more and more pushback from workers. I think that it is reaching a point where it’s become clear to people that work sucks, that it continues to suck, even if you get your supposed dream job. And that it’s not going to get better by quitting one job and going to the next – it has to get better on the broader, political level.

Even before COVID-19, work was getting worse. In the last year we have seen massive long-term unemployment rise in the US – and when there are more people out of work, your boss can always tell you, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can stick it and we’ll hire somebody else”. Work is going to keep getting worse until we stop letting it get worse.

The future is coming closer and closer.

My friend has a series of tweets where he just posts “the future sucks” with some article about technology. I feel that a lot these days. All of these things that we were promised, they’re not here – or if they’re here, they suck. We’re probably still doomed, but maybe things will get better?

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