Image by StartupStockPhotos
For decades, Americans have been told they should love their jobs. But is this a healthy relationship?
The first job I ever had was peddling $2.50 slices of pepperoni pizza to rowdy concertgoers and other summer festival attendees. I was 14, and it was fun: Pop songs clamored from a distant stage; free slices were endless; my hand occasionally brushed against the fingers of teenage girls. When customers tossed their quarters into the can near the register, we’d yell, “Tip in the jar!” and everybody in the booth would cheer. I loved those moments in a way that I did not fully understand. I love the memory of them still.
My boss was a brusque Italian American (on both sides, not just half, like me), originally from Queens, and a neighbor in the residential area of Seattle where I grew up. He was funny and sarcastic and tough and seemed to genuinely like me. I felt that it was a privilege to ride around with him in his rickety green truck, the two of us weaving through the inclines of Capitol Hill or South Lake Union, a cardboard box of cold cheese pizza on the dashboard between us, a wad of dollar bills stuffed into the front pocket of my tomato sauce-stained jeans.
I don’t quite remember when the relationship between us began to change. It might have been when I showed up to work one gray morning and there were hardly any customers at all. Rather than pay me my hourly wage of $7.75 to stand behind an empty counter, he told me to “bop around for a little while” and come back when there were more customers.
When I received a paycheck that paid me for several hours less than the hours I had actually worked, he explained, “You weren’t working hard enough.” Another time, he quoted me one hourly wage but paid me a lesser rate. These are classic examples of wage theft, but at the time the only thing I understood was that if I wanted to keep working in the pizza booth, I had to play by his rules.
I worked that job for another five summers. In some strange way, I loved working in the pizza booth. But the pizza booth (to riff on the title of labor journalist Sarah Jaffe’s new book) did not love me back. My boss was not my friend, and he certainly wasn’t my family. He was merely a person who held power over me, and his primary allegiance was to his bottom line.
As I moved on to other food service jobs—alongside stints as a caregiver for people with disabilities, political canvasser, adjunct community college instructor, and nonprofit administrator, among many other gigs—it was a lesson that I would learn again and again. Work was a way to make one’s living, pointedly not a place to find happiness or develop one’s sense of identity, although it could sometimes be fun or even rewarding.
This attitude toward work, I understood, placed me out of the mainstream, in part because, as Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back (Bold Type Books, 2021) demonstrates, it contradicted the cultural messaging that Americans had been fed for the past 40 years. That you should not only do but also love your job is an idea so ubiquitous as to seem incontrovertible. But its genesis, Jaffe shows us, is actually quite new, and its dissemination has been destructive for workers and the working class as a whole.
Jaffe’s history goes something like this: Capitalism of every era requires a spiritual or material ethic to justify its existence both to the people whose labor it exploits and to anyone else who might object to the inequalities that it produces. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Protestant ethic of work equated labor with Christian virtue. “One worked to be good,” Jaffe writes, “not to be happy.” As capitalism plunged into crisis, however, and more and more workers organized, the Protestant work ethic gave way to what Jaffe calls the “Fordist bargain.” While work might have been unpleasant, the better wages and benefits made the deal worth taking. You might have even been able to afford to purchase the products you’d spent all day assembling.
Work was a way to make one’s living, pointedly not a place to find happiness or develop one’s sense of identity, although it could sometimes be fun or even rewarding.
It was only in the 1970s, after a turbulent decade of social unrest that saw capitalism’s legitimacy threatened on several fronts, that the “Fordist bargain” began to break down. This was the moment when workers began to be told that they should love their work. Jaffe again traces this development to a shift in capitalism. As industrialists began to export factory jobs, which were mostly worked by men, to poorer countries, new opportunities for American workers arose in industries like retail, health care, education, and food service, where the jobs were mostly worked by women, the wages were lower, and employment status was more precarious.
These new capitalists absorbed earlier critiques of work and used them to their advantage. You say that you find your work boring? Repetitive? Uninspired? Then come work for an employer who cares. Find a profession that you enjoy. Do what you love.
The problem is not only that many, if not most, jobs are not in fact lovable. It’s also that these directives diminish the potential for collective action. “If workers have a one-on-one relationship with the job,” Jaffe writes, “then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or try harder. It is not to organize with your co-workers to demand better.”
Since 1980, the percentage of unionized workers in the United States has fallen by more than half. During that same time, wages have stagnated, health care and other essential costs have skyrocketed, and wealth has been redistributed to the very top. Jaffe’s book is filled with the stories of workers in occupations either of “care” or “creativity” (“the two halves of the labor-of-love ethic”) who have grown disillusioned by the conditions of their work as well as the arguments used to justify them. Instead of internalizing these failures as personal, they have banded together with the people around them to demand positive change. This is real love expressed in the form of worker solidarity.
My own story is not so different from some of the people in Jaffe’s book. After years of low-paid service work, I entered the world of organized labor. I am now employed by a union helping non-union workers to organize. It’s a great job for me, and I feel lucky to have it. But I wouldn’t say I love it. Even a job devoted to making other people’s jobs better is still, in the end, a job.
What do I love? My family, my friends, my comrades, and the other people with whom I make community. “Work will never love us back,” Jaffe writes. “But other people will.”
About The Author
Alex Gallo-Brown is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist based in Seattle. He is the author of The Language of Grief (2012), a self-published collection of poems, and Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press, 2019), a collection of poems and stories. Called “the poet of the service economy” by author and critic Valerie Trueblood, he has been awarded the Barry Lopez Fellowship from Seattle's Hugo House, the Walthall Fellowship from Atlanta's WonderRoot, and the Emerging Artist Award from the City of Atlanta. He holds degrees in writing from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Georgia State University in Atlanta.
This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine