The crisis of this pandemic year has been one long, exhausting disintegration of the patterns of everyday life: social gatherings, travel, in-person school, eating in restaurants. Perhaps the most drastic shift, however, involved what we do to survive—that is, our work. We lived in a deeply unequal society with an unhealthy obsession with our jobs before coVid-19; the virus shook the unstable pillars that were primed for collapse. Questions of what, exactly, constituted “essential” work met a predictable exodus of women from the workforce and the establishment of a stratified stay-at-home class.
This is all to say: Work Won’t Love You Back by longtime labor journalist Sarah Jaffe [Bold Type Press Books, $30], could not have arrived at a more appropriate time.
Jaffe is concerned with the myths we have internalized about what occupies our time from 9–5 (or any time at all, in the era of the gig economy). We expect that if we find a field which we’re passion- ate about (a word that has been rendered almost meaningless by generalized over- use), we’ll “never work a day in our lives.” This is nonsense, says Jaffe. No matter how closely your career aligns with your sense of self, it is still work, and therefore something we deserve to put aside in favor of personal fulfillment. We have convinced ourselves (in no small part due to corporate America) that work is part of said fulfillment, but the title of the book warns us away from that mindset.
Work won’t love you back—it will only ever demand more and more of your time. Or leave you without health insurance.
Jaffe organizes her text, chapter by chapter, around individual workers. Her subjects work in a variety of professions from athletes to teachers, and Jaffe takes care to outline the ways in which no industry is immune from exploitation. This is not to say that people cannot enjoy work— it’s just that it’s hard to purely love some- thing that has so much power over you. It’s difficult as an American to imagine a world in which housing, healthcare, and college (just to name a few public goods) are guaranteed—and even harder and more important to imagine how that might radically change our relationship to how much and what kind of work we pursue.
Jaffe writes eloquently on the hope and imagination it takes to re-envision that relationship. This is the current that flows through Work Won’t Love You Back. Concrete policies that guarantee basic quality of life could transform labor, work, and leisure. Whether or not we cross those hurdles is dependent on our ability to wield collective power as workers. America has long been hostile to the labor movement and union organizers, and coVid-19 has accelerated the erosion of basic protections and avenues for worker organization. But if Jaffe’s text isn’t quite a road map, it is a call to action— and not a moment too soon.