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Why You Don’t Feel as Fulfilled From Your Job as You Think You Should

12 minute read
Eliana Dockterman is a correspondent at TIME. She covers culture, society, and gender, including topics from blockbuster movies to the #MeToo movement to how the pandemic pushed moms out of the workplace.

­­Work Won’t Love You Back is a provocative title for book coming out at a time when many Americans are logging extra hours during the pandemic. But author Sarah Jaffe, whose book hits shelves on Jan. 26, argues that the “love your work” mantra is a myth of capitalism.

For most of human history workers clocked into their jobs knowing that “work sucked.” But in the 1970s, just when manufacturing began to die and labor movements began to lose ground, bosses started handing down aphorisms like, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Service people were told to plaster a smile onto their faces. Unpaid internships proliferated. And when women entered the workforce en masse looking for a paycheck, they were offered less money than their male peers. After all, their bosses argued, they should be grateful for the non-monetary rewards. “Even as the old story–that housework, and particularly motherhood, was inherently satisfying­­–hung on, the new myth, of work-as-liberation, grew up around it,” she writes. That pay gap has persisted.

In her book, Jaffe, a longtime labor journalist, says large corporations specifically conjured this fable in order to pay workers less and give them fewer benefits. The capitalist system, she says, depends on you believing that deception.

You’ve been reporting on labor issues for a long time, but how did you come to the revelation that the credo “do what you love” is used to exploit workers?

It really is the story of my work life. I’ve had various service-industry jobs since I was 14—everything from scooping ice cream to making coffee to waiting tables, all public-facing, “paste a smile on,” emotional labor kind of work. This work sucks. It’s terrible, and you constantly have to pretend you like it.

When I moved to Denver when I was 22, I was interviewed for this job at this sushi restaurant. And the owner was like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I was like, “Dude, you’re going to pay me $2.13 an hour. You don’t get my career aspirations and hopes and dreams for $2.13 an hour. You get me showing up on time. The rest of my wage is paid by the customer anyway.” And so I feel like this has been haunting me since then.

You write about interns, for example, being told by individual bosses that they should be grateful to be working even if they’re not paid for their work. But I’m interested in where that myth originated, on a macro level.

The economy of the mid-century, the economy that Donald Trump is always giving us these nostalgic callbacks to—”We’re going to bring back the factory jobs, we’re going to bring back the coal mines”—in those jobs, you didn’t have to pretend to like it. If you’re smiling while mining coal, I want to know what drugs you’re on because that stuff is not fun. That expectation was just not there.

When I went to the Lordstown factory in Ohio to talk to people who’ve been making cars for, in some of their cases, most of their lives, they’re proud of the cars they put out, but they’re not doing it to bring themselves fulfillment. They’re pretty clear-eyed about that. They’re doing it for the money and because it’s going to give them a decent life outside of work.

Then there’s the story that is on a million WeWork tote bags now: “Do what you love.” And that’s even a story I was told growing up by my parents who were small-business owners. Our fortunes fluctuated a lot when I was a kid, but it was always assumed that there was some career that would be inspiring to me, more so than maybe my parents had had. That’s a generational shift: A lot of factory workers worked really hard to put their kids through school, so their kids didn’t have to work in the factory.

But the other thing that happened is that the factory jobs are gone. The factories have shut down or gone overseas. Not just in the U.S. but in Western Europe, there are just fewer people doing manufacturing work in general. And instead, we have these low-wage service jobs that require more emotionally.

To play devil’s advocate, is the idea that you should love your work maybe useful in some way not just to capitalism at large but also to the worker? We all have to work to pay our bills, so why not try to pay those bills in a way that feels fulfilling?

Look, I’d much rather be doing the work that I’m currently doing than waiting tables, even though there are times as a freelance journalist, where my income has been about comparable to what it was waiting tables. I’m not trying to argue with this book that you should go work at a factory because that will make you happier. What I’m saying is that the way that this story is wielded against us actually makes it possible for me as a journalist who has a graduate degree to make no more money than I did waiting tables because I was supposed to be grateful to get $35,000 a year for my first journalism job.

On a micro level, what is the solution though? As an individual worker, do I just maximize profit while minimizing time working for that profit to find happiness in life?

I’m a bit thrown, with this book, when people are like, “What’s the answer?” Literally every chapter is about a worker who has done something, been part of organizing to improve their job. But I didn’t write an advice book. I wrote a book to tell people this is how capitalism works.

You spoke to people from different countries, but as a group, Americans take less vacation and work longer hours. Do you think “love what you do” is a uniquely American problem?

Well, it’s definitely true that Americans have some of the worst working hours in the post-industrial world because we are the only advanced capitalist economy that doesn’t require paid sick time or paid maternity leave or paid vacation. In most of Western Europe, these things are the law. The month of August is just a waste in London because everybody’s on vacation, and these are not people who are rich. These are statutory things.

The Red Scare in America has a lot to answer for. Now any little gain for workers is called communism. And so we don’t have a national health service, which we desperately need right now to try to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people against a global pandemic.

But also in other countries, mandated time off didn’t just happen. It’s not because people in France are better than us. They work 35 hours a week because they went on strike. Yes, the usual French strike is, like, the entire workplace goes out on strike and kidnaps their boss. And I’m not saying that everybody should kidnap their boss, but there’s a tradition of militancy in a lot of these places that stems from having been successful and remembering what it took to be successful.

I don’t think that we should be fooled into believing that Americans just love their jobs more than everybody else. We work more because we have to, because we literally don’t have the same job protections that people in Western Europe do.

A huge chunk of your book is dedicated to talking about domestic labor, traditionally thought of as women’s work. Washing the dishes at home is both unpaid and also is not particularly fulfilling. Obviously the feminist movement has pushed over and over again to get women out of the home and into the workplace, but then women got there and are still not paid equally. You tie that feminist struggle into the myth of loving your work.

The story was always that women are not supposed to work. Women are too fragile or too angelic or too any number of things in order to go into the workplace. So the exceptions to that become things like teaching and nursing, which look a lot like the work that women did in the home already. And the bonus to that was that if women aren’t expected to be paid, then they don’t want to be paid very much when they become a teacher.

The assumption is still that you’ll be a teacher for a couple of years, and then you’ll get married, have kids of your own, and so, while you’re a single woman who’s working, you’re probably living with your dad, and then once you get married, your husband will support you. So, you don’t need a real living wage, and that still colors how badly teachers get paid now.

The loving-your-job part comes into that too, where they told teachers that we want to hire women as teachers, because you’re naturally caring, and you love the children and all of that stuff. And that means that you’ll be good at this, and you’ll love this job, and it’ll be really meaningful to you because it’s fulfilling your natural purpose as a woman, and all of this totally sexist garbage that we still live with every day.

And now during the pandemic, we see all these surveys that say when both parents and kids are at home, women in heterosexual relationships are now doing the majority of the nurturing and teaching and cleaning and laundry during lockdown in addition to their work.

Yeah, the family is a style of work. So, that style of work creeps into workplaces. The hospital, for instance, is structured like a family where the male doctor, the theoretically male doctor, is in charge and the nurses sort of do his bidding and do the “caring” part of the job, even though as scholars of nursing pointed out to me, repeatedly, nursing is actually really difficult brain work. It’s not just holding somebody’s hand and caring about them.

To understand the way that we have devalued women’s work is really to understand that we’ve expected women to do so much for free over hundreds and hundreds of years. And that’s still evident in every survey that’s been taken since people started having to work from home in massive numbers.

I was struck in your book about the observation that work has pervaded our personal lives too. At one point you point to the fact that we even use the term partner to refer to a spouse. And you write, “Love is still just another form of alienated labor.” I’ve always thought of “partner” as a word that reflects two people being on the same team, reflecting work in a positive way. But could you expand on why work invading our personal lives is a bad thing?

Think about the way that Tinder becomes a job application, right? It’s basically like a little romantic resume with a headshot or three that makes you look attractive. And then you have some initial conversations and then maybe you go on a date that’s kind of like a job interview and the whole process makes me want to die.

But more than that, it’s also just the ways that I’ve got this stupid phone on me all the time. And especially now that we work at home, the boundaries of everything are blurred. If work becomes the thing we have to love, then what happens on the other end of the things we used to love?

And this is complicated by the fact that for a lot of people, we do love some of the work we do. And some of the work we do is unpaid family work, even if we’re not parents. Like I have at various times had to take care of my parents when they were not well. All of these things blur boundaries in really complicated ways.

Work has always sort of shaped people’s outside-of-work lives, in some cases really intentionally. I was just reading Greg Grandin’s book, Fordlandia, about Henry Ford and his attempt to socially engineer his workforces. And Henry Ford would send his sociological-department inspectors into his workers’ home to make sure they were upstanding heterosexually married men. There’s always been this intervention of work into the home. But now that there’s not a clear line between the two in a lot of cases, it just becomes really impossible to find the boundaries at all.

Again, I’m tempted to ask, “How do we set boundaries for ourselves when we need to pay the bills?” But you did not write a self-help book.

It should be possible to say, “O.K., I am ostensibly at work, even if I work from home, from 10 to 6. And after that, you cannot expect that I will answer email.” It’s really hard. It’s actually much harder, I think, when you’re a freelancer because I don’t have any one boss. And so if somebody emails me at 10 p.m. but it’s a really good offer, I’m going to answer it even though I’m basically scabbing on myself.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com

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