Is there something wrong in how we value work? How have our jobs defined such a big part of our identity and happiness? It used to be that working was a means to an end; while the job may have been monotonous at least it paid the bills! Today we’re expected to love our jobs, find passion and discover life’s purpose through our work.
KCRW talks with Sarah Jaffe, author of “Work Won’t Love You Back; How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone” on why she thinks that “job satisfaction” has become meaningless slogan as America’s workers continue to struggle for fair pay and guaranteed rights like maternity leave, sick and vacation time or healthcare.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Going back in history the idea of loving your work wasn't always the case. How has our relationship to the job evolved over the generations?
Sarah Jaffe: “At the beginning of this book, I tried to go back to the earliest moments in human history, how did we actually evolve the gender relations we have now, and then how did they shape the working relations we have? It’s fundamentally important to understand the beginnings of wage labor as a thing, as opposed to different ways that humans have worked over the course of human history. The way that it shifted from something you would be doing that you didn't really control, if you were a serf, in feudal times, to something where you left your house, went to a job, got paid for the amount of time that you worked at that job and went home - and the beginning of this distinction between work and home that we assume are natural, and have all been up ended on us during the pandemic.
That history has gone through a bunch of shifts, the way that people were expected to relate to work, at first, they weren't particularly expected to like it, but didn't really get a choice. And then through centuries of struggle, we got to a place where you weren't still necessarily expected to like the job that much but at least we'd come to a period that I refer to as the Fordist compromise, where you had what scholars have called, the industrial work ethic, where go to work for something like 40 hours a week, if you do more than 40 hours a week, you get paid over time and you get a decent benefits, you get health care, you get some vacation time and you get a weekend and that’s the trade off for going to work. It's not the work itself that’s going to be exciting and fulfilling, it's that it allows you to have a decent life when you're not working.
So the decline of that kind of labor, the shift away from industrial work, which happened for a variety of reasons, including outsourcing that work to places that can do it for less money, to automation, to some of those jobs shifting away from that model of production. So that meant a lot of changes for the industrialized world, it meant a shift away from a sort of one wage for the family to women entering the workplace enmass. And it also meant a lot of questions about whether this work is fulfilling. Questions about what people had wanted from work were beginning to be raised in the 1960s, and 1970s, and they got absorbed into this changing moment of capitalism. So what we get now is a work ethic that expects us to be flexible and networked and also really emotionally involved in our jobs.
How does parenting philosophy in the 70s and 80s fit into this model? The idea that you can be anything, that you’re special and can create a fulfilling career.
Jaffe: “interesting, because you have a generation who were industrial workers, who would say to their kids “I worked really hard in the factory so that you could do something better.”Putting your kid through school, along with buying a house, we're the tenets of the middle class and that was built by this industrial compromise between organized workers and their bosses.
I remember this so clearly. I'm 40, was born in 1980 and I feel like I grew up with this weird combination of this. On the one hand my parents said ”you can do whatever you want, go to school, and be smart and read lots of books, and you can do whatever you want.’ Then when I said I wanted to write fiction, they said “you can't make it, you can't really do that.” Especially as I got older and was thinking about college and they asked ‘what are you gonna do to make money?’ There was always this tension for them between wanting to raise kids who believe they could do anything but also being aware that you can't actually do anything.”
So you’re left with mixed values; follow your passion or support yourself financially?
Jaffe: “It's crumbling in so many ways, I graduated from college in 2002, I graduated from grad school in 2009 and now I'm living through like yet another crisis. These successive crises have come to a point where I am incredibly lucky that I have a functional career in journalism and feeling like I am constantly scrambling to make sure that I can stay afloat in this.
I'm 40 years old, I certainly have never been able to buy my apartment, let alone a house, an apartment, and I'm fairly successful. I'm out here talking to you about my book.”
So this whole thing is coming apart and the only answer we get is just to do what you're already doing just harder. But there's only so many hours in a day that I can work and there's only so many places that will publish it. There's only so many hours a day you can work at minimum wage, if that's all you can get access to. And right now a lot of those low wage jobs that people could get are also gone because a lot of things are still closed because we're in a pandemic.