Book Review: Love, Labor, Lost
Above photo: A “Red for Ed” teacher solidarity action in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/SIPA USA via AP.
The idea that you can love your job has become a trap.
Two days before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the halls of Congress and drowned out the rest of the news cycle, more than 220 workers at Google announced that they had unionized with the Communications Workers of America.
Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley industry leaders responded with disdain and mockery to the news. Coal miners and meatpacking workers were exploited and needed unions to protect them, their argument went, but it is hard to make the same case for Google’s software engineers, who chose their jobs, are passionate about what they do, and earn average compensation of over $164,000 a year to work in state-of-the-art offices complete with gyms, arcades, and foosball tables; massage rooms; and kitchens stocked with free Ghirardelli chocolates, organic string cheese, roasted seaweed snacks, La Croix soft drinks—the list goes on.
These superficial benefits mask significant labor problems at Google, from “systemic compensation disparities against women,” as the Department of Labor found in 2017, to the $90 million exit package awarded to former executive Andy Rubin after accusations of coercing a subordinate to perform oral sex, to the classification of at least half the workforce as contractors, without benefits or protections from discriminatory conduct or even access to town hall meetings and holiday parties. But the perks themselves are part of the problem. They are dangled at workers to keep them inside the building, working longer hours, devoting their entire waking moments to the company. It sounds privileged to frame foosball tables as a form of exploitation, but it contributes to a mentality of substituting work for the rest of your life.
In her sweeping new book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, veteran labor journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that it’s not just at Google or in Silicon Valley where there’s a startling dissonance between the passion, love, and care society tells workers to devote to their jobs and the exploitative realities they face at work.
“We’re expected to enjoy work for its own sake,” Jaffe writes. “[T]he things we used to keep for ourselves—indeed, the things the industrial workplace wanted to minimize—are suddenly in demand on the job, including our friendships, our feelings, and our love.”
Jaffe herself notes that, as much as she loves her job as a freelance journalist, and the moments of joy it brings, it still cannot be a source of true happiness. “Most jobs will not make us happy, and even the ones that do will often be a source of deep frustration,” Jaffe writes. “I am writing these words, for example, at 8:00 p.m., eating microwaved soup from its plastic container, having now spent twelve hours in front of a computer screen, and I have it pretty good.” (I too have it good, and have my dream job as a reporter at Vice, but it’s 7:00 p.m. and I am eating a bowl of week-old pasta after a long day of work as I write this article.)
The “labor of love” myth, or the impulse to love work, may appear to be a perennial. But in actuality, it developed in the post-Fordist, neoliberal era. Unlike today’s creative and care industry workers, General Motors autoworkers in the 1950s were never expected to project the appearance of gratitude or passion while assembling car parts. In the latter half of the 20th century, when corporations sent manufacturing jobs from the United States and Europe to the global South where labor was cheaper and regulations were nonexistent, jobs in services, retail, tech, and health care took their place. These jobs often require workers to wear a smile no matter how they’re feeling, and buy into the “love what you do” concept, whether that be at Walmart, Planned Parenthood, or Google. (Perversely, working in an Amazon warehouse now demands some of this performative enthusiasm as well.)
Jaffe argues that these jobs demand total devotion and excessive emotional labor, tricking workers into thinking that there’s something deficient about them if they don’t achieve self-actualization at work. Today’s workers should even be grateful for the opportunity to work; underpaid teachers and nannies should show up for children armed with an unlimited wellspring of love every day of the week; engineers, artists, and academics should come to work with a supply of passion and creative genius that never runs dry.
“Exploitation is not merely extra-bad work, or a job you particularly dislike,” Jaffe writes. “Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth.” That’s how you can tell a story about a well-off programmer at Google, free artisanal snacks and soft drinks and all, being exploited by a company that raked in $34 billion in net income in 2019.
Jaffe’s book is divided into two parts. The first debunks the myth of the “labor of love” in care jobs, from its origins in the women’s domestic sphere in the home to paid domestic work, teaching, retail, and the nonprofit sector. As she notes, she could have just as easily filled this section with deep dives into the emotional labor of nurses, grocery store cashiers, call center operators, or restaurant servers. Case studies feature contemporary workers living both in the United States and United Kingdom, where Jaffe has spent much of the past few years. A running theme throughout this section is that jobs that require the most emotional labor are often lowest-paid or unpaid, and feminized, with the expectation that women should fill these roles.
These chapters reflect Jaffe’s years of interviewing workers and reporting in the field, from the Los Angeles teachers strike of 2019 to a worker-led campaign against Toys “R” Us’s liquidation in 2018 to a union drive at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in 2017. Many of these labor organizing stories are featured in her indispensable podcast and archive of the labor movement, Belabored.
In a chapter on teaching, Jaffe traces how public-school teaching jobs came to be so poorly compensated and devalued, through a short history of the profession. Originally a part-time job for men in the earliest days of the United States, teaching transformed into low-paid women’s work in the 1830s. Labor wars in Chicago and New York City in the early 1900s led to unionization, and swift demonization from politicians and administrators, condemning teachers as “hellraisers” instead of “saints.” Jaffe describes how reformers de-skilled teachers in the 2000s by adding standardized-testing requirements that put interpersonal skills into the background, and introducing programs like Teach for America, where college graduates were parachuted into charter schools for short-term gigs. A wave of wildcat teachers strikes swept conservative states in 2018 in order to lift poverty-level wages and get students basic supplies.
It becomes clear through this case study how the dynamics of capitalism since its earliest days have shaped such contradictory and impossible expectations for teachers, who are asked to give all of their time and love to their students with little compensation.
The second section of Jaffe’s book focuses on the creative industries, from the video game programmer to the unpaid intern and the adjunct professor to the pro athlete. Jaffe investigates how workers in creative careers, herself included, came to be “expected to find the work itself rewarding, as a place to express their own unique selves, their particular genius.” Yet heaps of invisible and tedious labor go into making a magazine like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, a video game like Dungeons and Dragons, or a Jeff Koons art installation. “In these jobs,” Jaffe writes, “we’re likely to be told that we should be grateful to be able to work in the field at all.”
As Jaffe writes in her chapter on interns, most interns work “in order to one day get one of those jobs that are worth loving.” Scholars have defined internships as “hope labor.” Interns are often expected to perform emotional labor as well as the task at hand for free, even and especially in the most prestigious workplaces—the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament, Hearst and Harper’s magazines. Because they’re competing to be hired for paid jobs, interns often have no choice but to act grateful for the opportunity. In 2019, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) decided to pay her interns $15 an hour, she sent shock waves through the House of Representatives. At the time, 90 percent of House members did not pay interns. In 2012, an accessories intern at Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Wang, sued Hearst Magazines for violating federal and state labor law by requiring that she work for 55 hours a week unpaid until 10 at night, which became a federal class action lawsuit.
Internships, in other words, are really just a justification for the most egregious race to the bottom. They also reproduce economic and racial stratification in certain industries based on who can afford to take an internship, i.e., who has the financial security to work for free for months on end, often in an expensive city. “[T]he internship actually drives down wages by introducing a new wage floor—free—into the system,” Jaffe writes. “[T]hey must be willing to do whatever is asked and do it with a smile.” (Full disclosure: I interned at The American Prospect in 2015 for a $400 weekly stipend—and financial help from my parents and college.)
Jaffe’s solution again is found in collective action, with a joyfully militant moment in the winter of 2019 when tens of thousands of unpaid interns marched in the streets of Quebec to demand a fair wage and formal recognition under the law. Part of the problem with the internship setup is that interns, who are not technically employees, have no formal processes to report sexual harassment or discrimination. These Canadian interns, Jaffe writes, “questioned why certain jobs were well-paid while others were undervalued, and they challenged the rules of behavior that taught young workers, most of them women, to be meek and retiring and always ready to serve.”
As a journalist myself, I can thank my union, the Writers Guild of America, East, and the organizing of my colleagues who came before me for most of the good things about my job—my annual salary increases, my editorial freedom, my six-week severance package if I get laid off, and my relatively inexpensive health and dental insurance.
Should this “labor of love” myth be put to an end? Jaffe says it’s complicated. As long as humans live under capitalism, ordinary people don’t have much of a choice but to continue spending the majority of our waking hours at work to sustain our lives. Workers across the board—interns, public-school teachers, even Google engineers—should take every opportunity they have to organize and demand less time at work and more free time for pleasure, relaxation, and personal growth with friends, family, lovers, and neighbors. As Jaffe writes, “Work will never love us back. But other people will.”