If the past year has made us ask one question, it must surely be: how is it that our society so often chooses to place the least value on the work it needs the most?
One effect of the pandemic has been to strip away some of the mythologies of the labour market to reveal its bare essentials, what we have come to know as our “key workers”: that extraordinary frontline army in the NHS, the indispensable “caring professions”, the teachers who have tried to manage their children at home and our children on Zoom, the refuse collectors and transport workers and shop assistants and delivery drivers who have risked their health to keep it all going. How can it be that these jobs, that none of us can do without and not all of us would be able or prepared to do, are routinely among the lowliest in terms of reward? Should it really only be the market that decides what work is worth? How can we continue to justify a world in which Dido Harding’s management consultants pocket in a couple of days what an ICU nurse might earn in a month or where Jeff Bezos makes many, many times more in a second than one of his warehouse workers takes home in a year?
Sarah Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back is an extremely timely analysis of how we arrived at these brutal inequalities and of some of the ways in which a deliberately atomised workforce is beginning to organise to challenge them. Through a series of detailed case studies of modern “labourers of love” – the unpaid intern, the overburdened teacher, the 24/7 domestic help, the NGO employee, the fixed-term academic, the discarded Toys R Us worker, the working single mother – Jaffe, a New York-based journalist, examines two of the most damaging philosophies of our times. The first is the idea that we need to get used to a “disrupted” world in which job security and regular hours and living wages are necessarily a thing of the past, quaint, pre-internet relics such as affordable housing and three TV channels; the second, perversely, that work is supposed, more than ever, to bring us pleasure, meaning, fulfilment, that we should be grateful for it and happy in it and if we are not, we are simply not trying hard enough or being “smart” enough. (Or, as she writes: “How dare we ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay our rent and see our friends.”)
We live in perhaps the first period in history when the wealthiest members of society make a noisy virtue of never not being at work; weekends and evenings and families are all part of this advertised sacrifice. They never stop, they tell their employees – their staff at work and their staff at home – and they sell the idea that everyone must be equally prepared to do the same. Long gone is what Jaffe calls the “Fordist compromise” of labour in which workers would give up a reasonable amount of time and effort – five eight-hour days of work a week – in return for a pay cheque that was enough for a family to live on, with a bit over to enjoy free time and holidays and a pension at the end of it, what William Morris called “work for hope of rest”.
The migration of factory-based industry to cheaper labour markets long ago changed that bargain. What has replaced it is that familiar working world in the west that sells precariousness and anxiety as flexibility and freedom and in which any failure to earn enough to live on or to find job satisfaction is explained in personal terms – you must have made the wrong choices or not be making the most of opportunities. Reading Jaffe’s account of how in the decentralised, “freelance” workplace “collective action is unthinkable, the only answer is to work harder on yourself or to leave”, I was reminded of a statistic I once discovered when researching a story on mental health: that the number of working days lost to “stress-related illness” in the UK in 2015 – 9m – equated almost exactly to the number of days lost annually to strike action in the early 1980s. As Mrs Thatcher designed, shared grievance had been effectively privatised and concentrated in the individual.
I spoke to Jaffe about some of these questions last week, she isolating in her apartment in Brooklyn, me locked down in London. She agreed, to begin with, that her book was appearing at a critical moment – at a time when the desperation “to get back to normal” is offset by a much clearer understanding that “normal” didn’t work, and will never work, for many millions of people.
A lot of that, she argued, was because of that unchallenged assumption that we should never place any value on the “emotional content” of a job, on stuff that can’t be counted. “A few years ago, I did a lot of reporting on the nurses’ union here in New York,” she says. “And they would tell me that they were getting told, in these exact words, ‘to not waste time on things that were non-productive’, by which the hospital bosses meant caring, getting to know patients.” One of the things that the pandemic has shown, if we didn’t know it already, is that, in fact, a great deal of the value of nursing lies right there, in that “non-productive” effort. That’s what we clapped for on a Thursday night. “Yes,” Jaffe says, “and then you get some people who are like, ‘We clapped for them, but shouldn’t we also be making sure they get a raise?’ And on the other side, you get people who think, ‘We clap for you. Aren’t you grateful?’”
Jaffe argues that our society’s internalised, stubborn perception of worth and “productivity” remains rooted in gendered and class-based assumptions about work. Just as “male” manual labour commanded greater respect and reward than “female” domestic work, so most “caring professions” are extraordinarily undervalued beside “knowledge workers”, in particular those functions that involve the most disengaged money management (“the uncaring professions” you might say).
The pandemic has exposed the false borderline of home and work as necessarily separate and hostile worlds, a line that justifies the belief that work done for love in the home is less “valuable” than work done for money out of it. The liberating spirit that justly celebrated women competing on the same career ladder as men often had less to say about the working conditions of the domestic help required to enable it. (Jaffe tells the story of one professional couple in the early pandemic who were “hurt” that their nanny would not agree to isolate completely from her own family after hours and many others desperate to get cleaners back into their homes so they could escape them to “be productive”).
When we think of the words “working class” or “trade union”, Jaffe suggests, the images that still come readily to most minds will be the man on the production line. Partly because of these outdated definitions, two generations in service jobs who did not fit that stereotype have been coerced into forgetting the power of the collective. Her book charts what might be the first signs of a reawakening of that spirit in a contemporary context: from the efforts of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in America to enhance the rights of perhaps the most “invisible” employees to the nascent unionising of Silicon Valley (the collective efforts at Google to protest for gender equal pay, for example.)
She suggests there might in that be the seeds of a generational shift among those her age and younger (she’s 40), in recognising that they have been sold an idea of capitalism in which they have little prospect of capital (or housing or pensions or security or spare time). Her book is determinedly descriptive rather than prescriptive – “there are plenty of thinktanks for that” – but the unspoken goals are the “traditional” ones – “I am all for the four-day week, shorter working hours. Paid sick time and paid vacations, you know, raising protections, maternity provision” – as are some of the means of achieving them: re-energised worker solidarity (partly through innovative online organisation), a rethinking of redistribution, a proper conversation about universal basic income and sustainability and long overdue attention to maximum wages as well as minimum ones.
One starting point for that change, her reporting suggests, is a more evolved understanding of what “working class” now looks like; the realisation, for example, that the short-term-contract university academic has far more in common with the “death of the high street” retail worker or the gig-economy Uber driver than she or he might instinctively acknowledge. Another is the realisation that the forces dividing us include the false proposition that the expanding emotional demands of work should be a primary source of meaning and value in all our individual lives – “how devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone” as her subtitle has it. The pandemic both exacerbates those pressures and allows us to see their outlines. “We’re at a horrible, horrible moment,” she suggests. “But perhaps we can also start to see how to fight for the good future.”
• Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe is published by Hurst (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply