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arah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back considers the changing cultural compulsions that surround work as it increasingly makes demands not only on our time, but on our inner lives as well. In it, the author takes on the fashionable ideal of work offering something like self-actualization, arguing that it functions as a new trap of economic exploitation. Driven by what she labels the “labor of love” myth, Janffe describes how working people are squeezed of free time as well as piece of mind— “[r]acking up student debt, working longer hours, answering work emails on our phones… and doing more, always, with less” (p. 10). Attempting to lift the veil, Jaffe writes that the new desire for happiness at work is one constructed for us—just the latest trick of ever-shifting capitalist ideology. Against the backdrop of stagnant wages and deepening income inequality, the book claims that this false promise only ends up keeping workers exploited, exhausted, and alone.
A journalist, Jaffe constructs a critically-informed argument supported by reporting and original testimony from workers in burgeoning industries including nursing, domestic work, and computer programming. Through these personal encounters, the book is able to vividly make its case that rendering passion or positivity at work has increasingly become a requirement for people to make their living. Attuned to the lived experience of burnout and eschewing dense theorization, Jaffe’s primary argument that the labor of love myth functions as “a con” seems tailored to an up-coming young Millennial and Gen Z workforce “exhausted, burned out, overworked” and “underpaid” (p. 2)—in other words, primed for disillusionment with the prevailing “do what you love” ethos. And while the book risks eliding important distinctions regarding socially valuable and unnecessary work, Jaffe’s resulting calls for greater worker solidarity and a renewed politics of time are convincingly justified.
Jaffe traces this shift in attitudes toward work to the long-term trend in the US away from employment in manufacturing. The book contrasts the increasing precarity of employment and afforded by hourly workers against the comparative stability and rising wages offered by the mid-twentieth century’s Fordist compromise. After the economic crises of the 1970s, she writes, when the perhaps boring or arduous but dependable factory jobs began to decline, “[w]orking hours began to creep upward, and incomes down; more families relied on two incomes, and…no one had time to do the housework” (p. 4). New jobs came in expanding fields like retail, health care, services, and technology. Jaffe claims that many of these new forms of work demand similar sorts of effort: interpersonal empathy, entrepreneurial drive, or some combination of the two. When work was simply punching in and getting a paycheck, it neither promised purpose nor insisted on enthusiasm. But “with industrial jobs waning,” she writes, “more and more of us are falling into jobs that require some version of the labor-of-love ethic” (p. 14).
Seeking commonality among a broadly conceived working class, the author argues that the labor of love pressure can be felt across the pay scale. What customer care and in-home workers may experience as the demand to provide service with a smile or genuine empathy, white-collar professionals will encounter in an entire discourse around jobs as a source of purpose or fulfillment. With employers demanding more time, on average, and rewarding less in wages—and with the rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else—the variety of forms the labor of love appeal takes serve the same function. Tapping this fresh source of motivation for hard work, the author reasons, only ends up benefitting the bosses.
The duality of Jaffe’s “labor of love” theorization—uniting lower-wage service jobs with more lucrative and prestigious occupations—forms the book’s structuring principle. Part One (“What We Might Call Love”) considers domestic work, teaching, and retail while Part Two (Enjoy What You Do!”) encompasses higher-status professions such as visual art, academia, and software development. The solidity of this union between the “labor of love” thesis across disparate and distinct sectors can sometimes appear dubious: when Jaffe writes, for example, that “we’ve been told that work itself is supposed to bring us fulfillment, pleasure, meaning, even joy” (p. 2), the observation seems more attuned to the cultural atmosphere associated with the higher-status group—the primary audience for things like Lean In , TED Talks and Silicon Valley. But even if the conflation of these two groups’ experiences is imperfect, its permeability does not undermine Jaffe’s broader argument. Whether through a LinkedIn profile or a gig-app rating, workers in many different categories of employment now face added pressures to stand out and new threats for having an off-day. Be it in the flowery WeWork motto “do what you love”, the grim scorn of a Fiverr ad campaign, or the insistent perkiness of recruitment messages from retailers like Target, pressures of careerism and positivity are now increasingly normal across industries and income brackets. Jaffe asserts that “compulsion to be happy at work…is always a demand” to give more (p. 14).
Unraveling the false promise of joy amid exploitation, Jaffe’s book seems up to its primary task of stirring discontent among a generation of readers ripe for disillusionment. Apart from its timely intervention in public discourse around work, the book also sets out to make a more enduring contribution to critical theory and the study of capitalist ideology. Jaffe’s argument operates from a familiar Gramscian concept of hegemony while integrating a number of more contemporary theoretical sources including works of Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Fisher, and Silvia Federici among others. Deftly woven into the main exposition for uninitiated readers, familiar scholars will still find the book’s underlying ideas clearly sign-posted.
The most central body of work to the book’s theoretical claim is Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism (2007), which details the capacity of capitalist ideology to evolve in responsive to effective social critiques, in particular those of the 1960s and 70s. This grounding presents capitalist society’s dominant set of beliefs, ideas, and values as dynamic and evincing an uncanny ability to co-opt and adapt new ideas. As work in capitalist society is based on the extraction of surplus-value, the system requires motivation and justification for such work in order to be maintained. Over time, workers’, and employers’ rationalizations of the work in which they are involved is seen to respond to cultural changes, adopting fresh means of motivation.
Situating her work as an extension of this theory, Jaffe makes a compelling case that in the neoliberal era, capitalism’s ideological imperative for ripe impetus and justification for work has taken an inward turn. Even subtle expectations, such as “checking in” on weekends, tax workers’ ability to relax in their free time. If one fails to conform to the broader expectation for pleasure or satisfaction in their role, the fault tends to fall on the individual rather than the system; accordingly, one is encouraged either to adapt their attitude or change career paths. In this way, the labor of love is shown to effectively reinforce a neoliberal mindset of individuation: if everyone makes their own luck in the free market, blame for losing out must be similarly individualized. Ignoring the broader foreclosure on real wages, free time, and workers’ ability to relax, Jaffe argues that the “ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace” (p. 8) serve to undermine working class solidarity.
The “labor of love” and the social value of work
Given this indictment of the labor of love’s ideological function, it is perhaps not surprising that Work Won’t Love You Back judges harshly the very idea of pleasure or meaning in work. Jaffe tends to erect a strict dichotomy between buying into the con and an alternative ethic anchored on class solidarity. Work won’t love you back because, according to Jaffe, capitalism cannot love.
This imperative helps explain why the role of socially valuable or necessary work in the construction of “meaningful” work goes relatively unexplored within its pages. Surveying a broad spectrum of jobs from nursing to game development, the idea that some “post-industrial” work is more valuable to society than others does not factor into the analysis. This is in contrast to other recent “post-work” analyses which have delt explicitly with this relationship. David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018), for example, foregrounded the dearth of meaning or purpose among “information economy” workers; critical theorist Axel Honneth (2004) has similarly connected the disaggregation of “post-industrial” capitalism to a “social pathology” with “symptoms of inner emptiness, of feeling oneself to be superfluous, and of absence of purpose.”
Brought into dialogue with this wider contemporary analysis, Jaffe’s labor of love compulsion may be understood not as a totalizing dichotomy, but as one of a myriad of factors at play in the construction of “meaningful” work. Capitalism’s new labor of love appeals are indeed perverse, but the left should perhaps not be so quick to reject outright the premise that work ought to be meaningful. As nineteenth century Socialist William Morris (1993) wrote, worthwhile work— “duly done…for the benefit of the common wealth” and “useful for one’s fellows” offers the promise of “self-respect” and a “sense of giving worthy gifts to the world” (pp. 53,55, 73-4). This understanding offers a constructive basis for pleasure or purpose in socially valuable work, grounded in the same ethic of collective solidarity that capitalism thwarts, but which can persist amidst and despite the system’s ongoing exploitation.
Having made her case for casting off the illusion of “doing what you love,” Jaffe calls on workers to push back against the encroachment of work’s pernicious demands. Through workplace organizing and struggle, workers in these newly-augmented fields of employment can not only bargain for wages, but resist creeping demands on their time, attention, and disposition.
At points, Work Won’t Love You Back gestures toward a broader horizon for the working class: beyond the mere regaining of ground lost to four decades of neoliberalism, toward a renewed advance beyond it. Bringing together examples in the past decade of renewed unionization and labor actions from the US and abroad, Jaffe projects a measured but optimistic outlook for the rising tide of organized labor as a check on unprecedented corporate power.
“We are locked into a system of production in which we must work in order to survive,” Jaffe concludes “even as production needs fewer actual human hands than ever” (p. 325). Distilling this stance, the book-jacket promises that “casting off this myth [the labor of love] will empower us to work less and demand what our work is worth.” Yet unlike other post-work literature, the book is not concerned with bold policy solutions or ingenious fixes for the reclaiming of free time. The roadmap it offers is essentially one of resistance and struggle, whether at work or in the streets.
Conceived as a struggle for wages, conditions, and benefits alone, this trajectory risks getting stuck in the narrow conception of work as “employment opportunity” which is itself a feature of liberal capitalism. It seems a necessary but not sufficient challenge to the system of perpetual growth in which, as Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs describes, the slogan of “more jobs” becomes the perennial answer to Americans’ economic woes. Any hope of moving past this paradigm also necessitates close critique of the organization of work itself. Grounded in a distinction between socially valued work and labor, such analysis is capable of denying market capitalism’s narrow claims to economic efficiency and reclaiming it as a collective virtue. Seeing through this paradigm reveals how we can afford to work less and reorganize socially valuable work more equitably without sacrificing human flourishing—thereby addressing problems of overwork, stress, and atomization at their roots.
Jaffe’s treatment of work as foremost a location of class struggle bears its own historical echoes of such visionary ambition. It recalls the mass push against overwork during the Great Depression, with the bottom-up demand that work be shared more broadly via a thirty-hour workweek. In the context of the climate and ecological crisis, those class-based demands for less work, fairly distributed, represent a useful past from which to draw. As in that era of convulsive change, today’s set of demands can be broad and holistic ones, encompassing a radical politics not only of time, but also including work itself.
Boltanski L and Chiapello E (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London : Verso.
Honneth A (2004) Organized Self-Realization: Some Paradoxes of Individualization. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(4), pp. 463–478. DOI: 10.1177/1368431004046703
Graeber D (2018) Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York : Simon & Schuster.
Morris W ed. Zabel G (1993) Art and society, Boston: George's Hill.
Jared Spears is a writer whose work has recently appeared via Futures of Work, Public Seminar, Jacobin and elsewhere. He holds an MA in Cultural and Critical Studies from the University of Westminster, London.