“You don’t have to like it,” my late father would tell my siblings and me when we complained about our jobs. “That’s why it’s called work.” His career began in typewriter repair in the 1950s and, after a string of promotions, layoffs, and lateral moves, ended in middle management for a chain of grocery stores. He didn’t have to love his job; he loved us. By showing up to the office every day, he kept his family warm, fed, and educated. For him, that was enough.
Over the past few decades, this ethos of cheerless duty has been overtaken by the imperative to love your work. Graduation speakers, human resources departments, and motivational memes keep telling us we ought to merge passion with profession. But work remains stubbornly unlovable. Especially for workers in the United States, the hours are long, wages have not remotely kept up with productivity, and job security is minimal. What’s worse, as the labor journalist Sarah Jaffe shows in her illuminating and inspiring new book, Work Won’t Love You Back, employers across industries have appealed to the myth that work is love to justify these very conditions. “The labor of love, in short, is a con,” Jaffe writes.
In her account, the labor-of-love ethos takes two forms. In one version, love is care for others, epitomized in the stereotype of maternal love and often expected of workers in female-dominated professions like teaching, childcare, and customer service. In the other version, love is the passion of a creative genius, the person who is devoted to their craft for its own sake. The bargain offered to the “creative class” of highly educated postindustrial workers was that “work would be exciting, fulfilling, creative, a place for self-expression, but you had to give up knowing where your next check was coming from,” Jaffe writes. The unfairness of this bargain hits especially hard for women artists, academics, and athletes. Because the genius is historically a male figure, women in creative fields are more often expected to labor for little or no pay than are their male peers. It is the male-dominated fields of engineering and technology that offer paid internships, according to Jaffe, while teaching and nursing do not. Fashion and media companies have even auctioned off internships to the highest bidder.
Both care and creativity supposedly stand outside the capitalist drive to extract profit from labor. That’s why the labor-of-love myth is so effective in aiding it. Convince people that they are doing something they love, and how can they demand better working conditions? A former Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains employee tells Jaffe that the organization fought a fledgling union by claiming that management and labor were all “family.” And who would threaten to strike against family? Whereas other writers, confronting this rhetoric, have urged us to stop loving our jobs, Jaffe shows how workers can turn the love of work into a tool they can leverage against their bosses.
The workers Jaffe profiles—she uses one person’s story as a frame for each chapter—really do love what they do. Some, including a former Toys “R” Us cashier, even want their workplace to feel like a family. Jaffe says of the former Planned Parenthood employee, “Reproductive health work … [is] where her heart lies.” Adela Seally, a nanny, tells Jaffe she enjoys seeing the family’s kids grow and learn. “I love my work,” she says, “because my work is the silk thread that holds society together, making all other work possible.”
Even though these workers have bought into the work-as-love con, they do not come across as dupes. Rather, they see how they have been getting a raw deal, and they organize to improve their conditions. Work Won’t Love You Back is ultimately an optimistic book. Jaffe is clear-eyed about all the ways employers exploit workers’ goodwill, but because she has spent so much time reporting on labor actions across the world, she has also seen how workers use love to their advantage in organizing.
The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike is one example. The strike came in the wake of federal education reforms that, Jaffe writes, “were designed in fact to produce less-caring teachers” through a focus on testing and “accountability,” which often just meant making teachers easier to fire. The Chicago teachers had learned that to win over the public, they needed to put their commitment to caring about students and their communities at the forefront. It worked; after striking for seven school days, the teachers got the protections they sought.
The love ethos, then, is a double-edged sword. As Marx and Engels claimed in The Communist Manifesto, the very skills that make someone a productive employee also make them a formidable opponent of management. When Woolworth’s employees struck in 1937 in Detroit, Jaffe writes, the saleswomen “knew that the same charm that had gotten them hired in the first place would play well with reporters, and they performed for the cameras that turned up as well as for one another.” This is true, too, for the professional-managerial class, highly educated workers who have lost considerable autonomy and security since the 1970s. This proletarianization of large numbers of professionals, Jaffe observes, “makes them dangerous even as it strips away their power.”
From management’s perspective, the ideal employee is selflessly devoted to the job. That selflessness can lead to victories for labor when workers direct it toward each other, as Jaffe shows in her reporting on a remarkable 2018 strike by student interns in Quebec. Not only were there gender disparities in whether the interns were paid, but because unpaid interns are not classified as employees, they received no other labor protections, including against sexual harassment. Some interns organized at great risk; an intern who develops a reputation as a labor agitator can be marked for their entire career. On top of that, internships are by definition short-term. The main beneficiaries of whatever they won in their strike—in this case, a stipend, though not an official wage—would not be themselves, but future workers in the same position.
Economic change often occasions a shift in our moral thinking, our vision of a good life. The labor-of-love ethos grew in tandem with the feminization of work. That is, from the middle of the twentieth century, not only did women enter the paid workforce en masse, but the kind of work Americans do more closely resembled traditional “women’s work” of caring for and responding to the emotions of others. Manufacturing and mining were down, customer service was up. In addition, the low wages and minimal security of the (mostly white and female) temp labor force of the 1960s spread throughout the economy in subsequent decades. In the words of Bryce Covert, “We’re all women workers now, and we’re all suffering for it.”
Covert’s remark suggests that women’s experience of work is emblematic of all workers’ experience. In that respect, it makes sense that nine of the 10 workers Jaffe profiles in Work Won’t Love You Back are women. (The lone man is a computer game designer in England.) And although Jaffe does not frame the book as being mainly about women’s labor efforts, that’s where she focuses. The Quebec interns modeled their strike on feminist activism. The U.S. women’s national soccer and hockey teams—both of them the current world champions—won significant increases in compensation when they threatened to sit out major tournaments. To Jaffe, the athletes demonstrated that “women’s bodies being used for something so far from what they are told they are for—for bearing and nursing and attracting others—hold power.” In other cases, from the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen’s strike to the Chicago teachers’ strike headed by Karen Lewis, Jaffe shows how Black women often led the way to gains for labor.
Still, I wondered how men have responded to the love ethos in their work and activism. Deindustrialization has meant the decline of the “breadwinner” model of manhood my father adhered to (even though he wore a white collar). Men have had to reinterpret masculinity in recent years to accommodate their diminished prospects in the service economy. Although heterosexual American men on the whole still do considerably less domestic and childcare work than their female partners, some who have been laid off have begun to say they are “man enough” to stay home with their kids or to have a woman support them.
As every catastrophic gender reveal reminds us, Americans still put tremendous weight on gender differences, from even before birth. As a result, men do not tend to be conditioned from childhood, as women frequently are, to think of themselves as natural caregivers. But many exercise such skills at work anyway. One and a half million men work in retail sales in the U.S.; hundreds of thousands (including me) are university adjunct faculty. What does it look like when employers exploit their impulse to love their work? And how do men turn those skills against exploitation? These are important questions for how to foster solidarity in mixed-gender workplaces.
Solidarity, Jaffe reminds us, is a form of love. That’s why she argues that love is the very solution to the problem she identifies. “The work itself only matters as a way to connect,” Jaffe writes. “All of the labors of love, stripped of the capitalist impulse to make money, fame, and power, are really at bottom attempts to connect to other people.” In other words, working under capitalism has alienated us from our own love. To reclaim it, we need only turn to each other, and connect. Connection is difficult right now, in what I hope is the final wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, workers have organized and made demands in these circumstances.
“The labor-of-love myth is cracking under its own weight,” Jaffe writes. We will need a new ethos to replace it—a more humane one that expects not only less passion in work but less work altogether. “If everyone had the right to live, to a home and health care regardless of whether or how much they worked,” Jaffe asked in an article for The New Republic last May, “what would the incentives be for people to take up that socially necessary work?” Love already motivates us to provide for the people in our household who do not work. The breadwinner ethos, at least, got that much right. With a broader sense of solidarity beyond the family, a richer vision of the common good, and a continued commitment to universal cash benefits, we can ensure that everyone can live the life of dignity they deserve. And then, paradoxically, without the pressure to work to survive, we might discover what it really means to labor for love.