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The Life and Death of the Dream Job

A new book reminds us that work is only a means to an end

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe. Bold Type Books, 432 pages.

The legal age to start working in Ohio is fourteen, but my two best friends and I found ways to get jobs before that anyway. We knew the term “under the table” from our parents, who were working-class both in that they were not bosses, and also in that they kept us surviving paycheck to paycheck and sometimes defaulted on utility bills. (Though we never named it, we were best friends partially because of this common family denominator, much different from our wealthier peers at school.) We found odd tasks to do for a few bucks—laying mulch for a small-town landscaping business, washing dishes at rich people’s parties, the occasional babysitting gig. Finally, the summer after freshman year of high school, when we were allowed to have jobs that paid us “over the table,” we each made our way into the service industry: two of us at Wendy’s on the cash register, the other learning how to pull shots at Starbucks.

Work, at this point of my life, felt almost neutral; it was something I had to do, and the drudgery of it that I witnessed my mom experience across all of her low-paying, body-breaking jobs, was simply a given. Work and/or the lack of it haunted the houses and apartments where Mom and I lived, but I never thought to be angry at the ghost. We worked to stay alive, whether we liked it or not.

The taken-for-grantedness of work is a central theme of Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Jaffe’s introduction gives us the context for how capitalist hegemony operates to make the structure of work in society seem like “common sense,” then proceeds to poke holes in the belief that how many hours we work, how much we get paid, and even that we have to work at all is somehow natural. Rather, Jaffe explains, these things have been constructed, and they change over time to best suit those in power.

We haven’t always tried to find meaning in paid labor.

The book contains original reporting interwoven with keen analysis of and remarkably thorough histories behind several different, but related, kinds of labor, including domestic care work (both hired and familial), public school teaching, non-profit staffing, academia, art, sports, and tech. Jaffe talks with people who were initially drawn to their jobs because they felt a genuine commitment to, or derived pleasure or purpose from, the work. Throughout these interviews, we bear witness to the complicated emotional stress of feeling passionate about work that is simultaneously exploitative and alienating.

This contradiction, Jaffe explains, although increasingly common, is a relatively new one. We haven’t always tried to find meaning in paid labor, and in fact a central struggle of the early labor movement was to reduce the number of hours we spent on the job. “The labor movement’s earliest demands were usually for less work . . . ” Jaffe reminds us. “The strike, the workers’ best weapon, is, after all, a refusal of work, and for a while they wielded it effectively, winning some concessions on the length of the working day and week as well as on wages.”

Even under the always-already exploitative nature of work under capitalism, for much of the twentieth century, workers had the ability to organize for the kind of time and wages that created for many (though certainly not all) a decent quality of life. But the onset of what we now mark as the neoliberal era shifted things. Jaffe cites Pinochet’s reign in Chile as its origin, and traces the reorganization of the Latin American economy in the early 1970s to the Thatcher and Reagan-influenced economic shifts in the UK and United States in the 1980s. In addition to the core goal of privatization, neoliberalism fundamentally redefines “freedom,” says Jaffe, “away from a positive concept (freedom to do things) and toward a negative one (freedom from interference).” Concretely, this encouraged corporate leaders—in conjunction with politicians—“to squeeze labor harder,” she explains, by outsourcing jobs to the global South, increasing working hours, and decreasing wages. At the same time, social welfare systems collapsed and private business models seeped into governance; all the while, work was being framed more and more as something we are individually responsible for and should choose to do for fulfillment: “If workers have a one-on-one love relationship with the job, then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or try harder. It is not to organize with your coworkers to demand better.”

As a working-poor Boomer, my mom wasn’t conditioned to seek love in work. She had (and still has) a love for reading, craft-making, and family. She never had a passion for serving drinks at the Brown Derby, delivering newspapers at 3 a.m., serving cafeteria food, hauling ink cartridges in a print shop, or working for below minimum wage to do home health care. But I am from the post-Reagan generation, in which, Jaffe says, “it’s become especially important that we believe that the work itself is something to love.” When in 2003 I made it to college—with the help of above-the-poverty-line relatives, good grades, and a contract signing me up for decades of debt—I felt certain that it was a guaranteed path to escaping the menial labor I both performed and witnessed growing up. Even my burgeoning post-9/11 radical politics didn’t stop me from buying into the dominant narrative that college secured upward mobility. I think I needed to buy it—the idea that college wouldn’t be my ticket to “fulfilling work” was too much to bear. And so I did what I was told to do by posters in guidance counselor offices and bumper stickers on cars: “Follow your bliss”; “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”; and other messages that promised me my fate wouldn’t be the same as others from my blue-collar town.

Four years of liberal arts education and concurrent political organizing work provided me theories and frameworks that felt intoxicating and led me to quickly romanticize the space of academia. It seemed to me that what I loved was learning, and my professors appeared to get paid to do that as their job. I wanted to do that, too. And so, I went to grad school, convinced I had found the loophole in the system that would offer me financial security and fulfillment.

When I got to my PhD program, I was astounded that I would get paid (around $15,000 a year) to read, write, and teach all day. While some grad students complained about the teaching, I loved being in the classroom with students. Compared to my mom, who was at this point working as a home health care aide and taking care of my elderly grandmother at the same time, my job did not feel like work at all. Like many of the academics, artists, and game programmers Jaffe interviews in the book, it was at first hard for me to think of myself as laboring. Had I not entered the program with a developed left politics, I don’t think I would have been so quick to join the group of grad students seeking to organize a union. And indeed, during our unionization effort, I had countless conversations with peers who identified more as passionate apprentices-in-training than exploited proles. Our task in organizing our fellow workers was to illuminate the distinction Jaffe makes clear in her book:

Exploitation is not merely extra-bad work, or a job you particularly dislike. These are the delusions foisted on us by the labor-of-love myth. Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth. Exploitation is the process by which someone else profits from your labor.

Our union campaign ultimately lost with a vote of 1,857 to 1,142, but I wonder sometimes about where my colleagues ended up: if they, like me, were hurled into adjunct and other term positions that may have provided more clarity on the way higher ed functions on the backs of low-wage workers, even after we get our fancy degrees.

Compared to most graduate student positions, adjuncting makes obvious what Jaffe describes as the “proletarianization” of the “professional managerial class” (PMC) to which academics belong. The PMC was originally defined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, who made distinct the kind of worker “whose jobs required some schooling and gave them some degree of power . . . and who retained some degree of autonomy on the job.” Jaffe argues that the “professional” component of the PMC—such as teachers, doctors, journalists, and social workers—“considered themselves outside of the battle for profits and saw their work as having intrinsic social value.”

As an adjunct, the “intrinsic social value” of being a college professor is harder to believe in. Rather than teaching one class, or maybe existing on (low-paid) fellowships and researching—as most graduate students do—adjuncts often teach four to five classes a semester, sometimes at more than one college or university, usually with no time for research. A 2018 study reported that over 70 percent of faculty positions are “off the tenure track,” meaning they come with no guarantees beyond year- or semester-long contracts, and often no benefits. This influx of adjunct positions is also a symptom of the neoliberal shift in higher ed, which compelled universities to lure big-name researchers, build luxury student housing, hike administrator pay, and cut costs everywhere else. “The academic profession itself, like many others, was becoming polarized into a handful of stars at the top and a vast academic proletariat at the bottom,” Jaffe writes.

I spent five years on the job market before giving up the delusion that my work—excellent teaching evaluations, yearly publication of peer-reviewed articles, dozens of conference presentations, and so on—would ever be rewarded with a tenure-track position. My time on the market coincided with years of hoping that my post-grad instructor position might (as the job call suggested) convert to full-time; an exhausting number of on-campus interviews; and mental health challenges that nearly destroyed me. I had spent over ten years devoting my life to academia, and the idea that I wouldn’t end up there was not just an affront to my employment, but also my identity. Who was I, if not an academic? What could I possibly do if not teach and research? What would it mean if my dream of getting to “do what I love” would never come true? It would mean, I realized grimly after my final campus interview, that I was the rule and not the exception.

Wage labor is part of my coming of age story, just like my relationships are, and I only survived the former because of the strength of the latter.

It’s been years since I have found peace and acceptance in my decision to leave academia, but the pain lingers like a bad breakup; really, it feels like lost love. Ironically, though, I am less lonely on the other side. Heartbreak, after all, is one of the most universal human experiences, and so is the experience of being an exploited worker. Despite having internalized the mindset instilled in supposedly upwardly mobile PMC workers, I was reminded again how much more in common I had with people from my hometown than with any boss on campus. “Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace,” Jaffe observes, “serves to undermine solidarity.” In leaving work I loved, I found a new space of belonging: not only my fellow precariously employed academics (with whom I would continue to organize), but all workers.

Jaffe and the workers she interviews help us make sense of the messy tangle of emotions so many of us feel about our professional lives; when the lines are blurred between work and play, as Jaffe so astutely explains and historicizes for us, they are simply the messy tangle of emotions about our lives, full stop.

The final chapter of Work Won’t Love You Back is at once a brilliant contribution to the growing canon of anti-work political theory and a moving ode to human connection. Jaffe quotes Silvia Federici in urgent invitation: “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love.” The workers interviewed throughout the book remind us of this distinction; on the one side, the structural fatigue of boundary-less work, low pay, and long hours, and on the other, the pleasure of relationships that keep us going. Whether they are the relationships we turn to between wage labor obligations—to restore us before or after our working hours—or the coworkers and colleagues on the job with whom we brainstorm, gripe, and, ideally, unionize, connection is both an anchor and a buoy, allowing us to hang tight or keep going when the situation calls for it. “The work itself only matters as a way to connect,” Jaffe writes. 

When I think about my first jobs, it makes sense that I think about them in relation to my two best friends. Wage labor is part of my coming of age story, just like my relationships are, and I only survived the former because of the strength of the latter. Jaffe knows this too, and her conclusion is a call to action in this spirit. If we endure the stresses of contemporary capitalist working conditions with the help of our relationships, imagine the possibilities available to us if we worked to dismantle those conditions altogether. “Stripped of the need to fight to survive, how much more connection could we create?” she wonders. “How much more could we try to know each other?”