The Life and Death of the Dream Job at The Baffler

The wonderful Raechel Anne Jolie (whose book, Rust Belt Femme, I devoured in nearly one sitting) has written about Work Won’t Love You Back for The Baffler and I couldn’t be more thrilled. She writes:

The book contains original reporting interwoven with keen analysis of and remarkably thorough histories behind several different, but related, kinds of labor, including domestic care work (both hired and familial), public school teaching, non-profit staffing, academia, art, sports, and tech. Jaffe talks with people who were initially drawn to their jobs because they felt a genuine commitment to, or derived pleasure or purpose from, the work. Throughout these interviews, we bear witness to the complicated emotional stress of feeling passionate about work that is simultaneously exploitative and alienating.

This contradiction, Jaffe explains, although increasingly common, is a relatively new one. We haven’t always tried to find meaning in paid labor, and in fact a central struggle of the early labor movement was to reduce the number of hours we spent on the job. “The labor movement’s earliest demands were usually for less work . . . ” Jaffe reminds us. “The strike, the workers’ best weapon, is, after all, a refusal of work, and for a while they wielded it effectively, winning some concessions on the length of the working day and week as well as on wages.”

As a working-poor Boomer, my mom wasn’t conditioned to seek love in work. She had (and still has) a love for reading, craft-making, and family. She never had a passion for serving drinks at the Brown Derby, delivering newspapers at 3 a.m., serving cafeteria food, hauling ink cartridges in a print shop, or working for below minimum wage to do home health care. But I am from the post-Reagan generation, in which, Jaffe says, “it’s become especially important that we believe that the work itself is something to love.” When in 2003 I made it to college—with the help of above-the-poverty-line relatives, good grades, and a contract signing me up for decades of debt—I felt certain that it was a guaranteed path to escaping the menial labor I both performed and witnessed growing up. Even my burgeoning post-9/11 radical politics didn’t stop me from buying into the dominant narrative that college secured upward mobility. I think I needed to buy it—the idea that college wouldn’t be my ticket to “fulfilling work” was too much to bear. And so I did what I was told to do by posters in guidance counselor offices and bumper stickers on cars: “Follow your bliss”; “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”; and other messages that promised me my fate wouldn’t be the same as others from my blue-collar town.

Read the whole thing (it’s so good!) at The Baffler.

The Myth of “Loving What You Do” Has Ruined Modern Work for Everyone at Fatherly

I spoke with Lizzy Francis at Fatherly about Work Won’t Love You Back, care work, parenting, and collective action. She writes:

“Love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” Or so the old adage goes. That phrase has been pummeled into our heads — and is even the slogan for a popular co-working space, printed on t-shirts and hats, an ethos in and of itself. For most people, that phrase is a load of crap, and it’s a harmful load of crap, too. After all, as long as people wonder how to find a job you love, they’ll never actually step in to make the job that they have a better one. “Do what you love, love what you do” is a fantasy of modern work that keeps people from understanding the ways in which they could make work better for themselves and their coworkers.

After all, the implication that “loving what you do” carries is that if you find something that stokes your passion, then frustration anger, or the rat-race struggle to get that promotion won’t actually feel like, well, work. It also has the pernicious effect of making money and benefits secondary to that passion — rather than the benefit of work itself. This type of thinking, however, pervades the modern workplace. And it’s making work worse than ever. 

“Work is awful,” says Sarah Jaffe, labor reporter and author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Work was awful before the pandemic, and the pandemic has just made work even worse.”

In her new book, Jaffe traces the death of typical factory jobs and the rise of care work (from service industry jobs, which account for the majority of work, to health care work) and emotional labor to the rising attitude that employees should love what they do to make their livings. Jaffe says that emotional labor is the hallmark of most middle-class jobs — whether you work in an office or as a nurse.

While that’s perfectly fine, it has led to an expectation that everyone is passionate about their 9-5’s. This false notion makes it seem like the job — not the salary, not the benefits, not the ability to stay home with your kids — is the reward in and of itself. When the work becomes the reward, everyone gets screwed. We overwork, we get underpaid, and worst of all, we don’t see a way out. Parents, especially, are caught under the wheel that keeps turning.

Read the whole thing at Fatherly


Work Is Just Not That Into You at the Saturday Evening Post

I spoke to Nicholas Gilmore at the Saturday Evening Post about Work Won’t Love You Back, class composition, what we might do with our free time, and, it turns out, a lot about Bette Davis. He wrote:

“The thing about common sense is that it’s often wrong,” Sarah Jaffe writes in her recent book Work Won’t Love You Back. In the book — part labor history, part collection of profiles of workers — Jaffe takes aim at some entrenched American ideas about the daily grind.

Many of us were raised to aspire to turn our passion into a paycheck, but Jaffe writes that the whole notion of work as something we enjoy spending our time doing is rather new. Even if there is joy in the work, she says that this can often blur the line between labor and love in a way that rarely benefits workers.

Tracing the ways we work — and who gets compensated for it — from pre-industrial times to today’s video game designers and striking teachers, Jaffe makes a case for a renewed telling of an old story of labor, and perhaps a revival of an old strategy to solve our collective work woes.

Read the whole thing at the Saturday Evening Post.

Freedom and leisure for everyone at Die Zeit

Lukas Hermsmeier wrote a long, thoughtful piece about Work Won’t Love You Back alongside Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work and Eva von Redecker’s Revolution for Life. In German, but also available in English! He writes:

What makes Jaffe’s analysis so interesting is that it merges the swelling mantra of love your work with the increasing fragmentation and precariousness of the world of work. Jaffe explains that the pressure to love one’s work, to even feel realized through it, is, to the extent that it is today, a phenomenon of the post-industrial age. Even long before that, as Max Weber pointed out at the beginning of the 20th century , the capitalist world of work had been shaped by Protestant ethics; and in the Fordist economy, too, the workers had been battered and the roles were unjustly distributed according to gender. It was only neoliberalism, however, writes Jaffe, “that tried to give us not freedom from work, but through work.”

Read the whole thing at Die Zeit