Work Isn’t a Privilege
Work Won't Love You Back

Work Isn’t a Privilege

Journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that the modern ideal of loving your job is a free-market myth that rebrands the gig economy, and other tenuous or ill-paid labor, as the means to a more authentic life.

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist who has written prolifically on labor and politics. Her latest book persuasively and comprehensively critiques the gig economy. Jaffe demythologizes what she calls the “labor of love,” the current labor paradigm, in which employers insist that workers should love their jobs, even as those jobs become less stable, prestigious and remunerative. Jaffe uses theory, historical research and case studies to unmask the exploitation this myth enables, calling for solidarity across the new working class. 

Debunking the “Labor of Love” Myth

Under the welfare state and industrial ethic, which peaked in the mid-20th century, many workers enjoyed stable employment, living wages, and benefits. However, Jaffe delineates the decline of that ethic since the 1970s, when deindustrialization and the rise of neoliberalism compromised the labor market. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher championed the free market, dismantling organized labor and the welfare state. Companies slashed labor costs through automation and outsourcing. As service jobs eclipsed manufacturing, employment became more contingent and less remunerative.

The difference between what the movements of the 1970s wanted and what they got was telling …They wanted less work, a life less dominated by demands of the boss; they got fewer jobs and work fragmented into gigs.Sara Jaffe

In the 1960s and 1970s, leftist movements had challenged various forms of inequality under capitalism. Some second-wave feminists, for example, advocated for women to work outside the home, as a means of fulfillment. More radical activists, who saw capitalism as inherently exploitative, demanded less work, more generous welfare policies and pay for work done within the home.

Ironically, companies and mass media have selectively reappropriated facets of these movements’ demands in support of their resurgent, deregulated brand of capitalism. They have re-cast the insecurity, longer hours and lower pay of the gig economy as a means to a more authentic life: the chance to “do what you love.” Jaffe’s reporting shows how underpaid workers in nearly every sector feel pressure to enjoy work for its own sake, rather than demanding adequate compensation for their labor. 

Denigrating “Women’s Work”

Jaffe’s feminist historical analysis shows how capitalism has always devalued “women’s work” – the labor of loving and caring for others – which it circumscribes within the home. Additionally, the dismantling of the welfare state since the 1970s means that care of the young, elderly and disabled is, increasingly, privatized. The neoliberal state does not compensate families for their caregiving work, and professional carers lack adequate compensation. Home health care is among the fastest-growing fields in the United States. Yet generally, these workers lack labor protections. Many are immigrant women, made more vulnerable by their undocumented status or work-contingent visas.

Jaffe’s analysis demonstrates how this ethic of self-sacrifice affects other caring professionals who pick up the slack of the declining welfare state. Teaching and nonprofit work – both, historically, female-dominated and un- or underpaid professions – are prominent examples.

Teachers epitomize the trap that has all laborers of love in its grip. If they demand better conditions for themselves, they’re called selfish, even as their demands are often ones that would improve their students’ lives as well.Sarah Jaffe

Austerity measures mean that both teachers and nonprofit workers often find themselves in the position of competing for inadequate resources with the people they work to serve.

“Service with a Smile”  And Bad Pay

Since the 1970s, Jaffe notes, retail has replaced manufacturing as the largest sector of the economy, and the largest job category in the United States. Retail, from its inception, was a feminine-gendered job. The earliest department stores, at the turn of the 20th century, hired young, single women for low-paid, temporary clerk positions.

Walmart has changed the American workplace: More and more of the jobs of the 21st century are made in its feminized, low-wage image, with no health insurance, volatile schedules and high turnover.Sarah Jaffe

Later in the 20th century, Walmart codified the retail industry’s demand for “service with a smile” – an ethos of forced positivity and emotional loyalty in lieu of fair wages and working conditions. More and more employers, Jaffe argues, follow Walmart’s model of demanding a high emotional investment from their employees, while offering inadequate pay and benefits in return.

The Chimera of “Hope Labor”

Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan coined the term “hope labor” to describe poorly paid work done while hoping for better employment in the future. Internships, the quintessential form of hope labor, exploded as companies sought to cut labor costs in the 1990s. Professionals increasingly believed they had to earn “fulfilling” careers, first putting in time as unpaid interns. However, as Jaffe points out, the law does not regard interns as employees, which excludes them from workplace protections and minimum wage payments. In a cruel irony, interns increasingly are used to replace the paid positions they one day hope to fill.

The intern is the vehicle by which the conditions of contingency and subordination that are common to low-wage service work creep into an increasing number of salaried fields.Sarah Jaffe

Academia, which once served as a path to upward mobility, now also runs on hope labor. Universities increasingly cut costs by replacing tenure-track positions with low-paid labor done by adjunct faculty and graduate student workers.

The New Working Class

Jaffe’s analysis extends into the so-called “creative classes” as well. She argues that the myth of the solitary genius who sacrifices stability and relationships in pursuit of personal expression belies the actual labor done by workers in fields from fine art to tech to sports. Jaffe covers each of these professions in great depth.

Although computer programmers and professional athletes often receive adequate or even superlative compensation for their work, Jaffe’s cogent synthesis illuminates the exploitation they face under the labor of love paradigm. Athletes endure physical trauma in the service of corporate owners, and programmers face unpaid overtime and high turnover. These examples illustrate how more and more of the labor force might be considered working class.

We can see that process of class formation happening now, as workers who might have assumed themselves middle class start to understand that their relationship to power means they’re still workers.Sarah Jaffe

Today’s economic climate makes labor organizing more important, and difficult, than ever. Before the 1970s, workers could withhold labor to leverage their demands for better conditions. Now, the precarity of employment, as well as the isolating effects of the gig economy and the decline of unions, mean that working-class power disintegrates even as its ranks swell.

Jaffe does outline a path forward. Throughout the book, she provides compelling case studies that show how workers can organize to demand better conditions by building alliances and recognizing commonalities across demographics and job categories. Jaffe, who also authored the book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and co-hosts Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, has made this type of activism her life’s work. The power of her convictions bolstered by meticulous research imbues the book with a passion that shines through on every page. 

Other notable books on the gig economy include Gigged by Sarah Kessler and Ghost Work by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri.

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