What if our liberation has nothing to do with work?
What if “success” is a meaningless metric? What if the prize you win for landing that dream job is just more stress, more pressure, and still not enough money or free time to enjoy it?
These are questions being asked more and more often in the post-financial-crisis era, where just maybe, if we’re lucky, more than just markets collapsed in 2008. Maybe we can slowly start putting an end to the whole idea that work is anything other than what we need to be liberated from.
My regular readers will know that this is a favorite topic of mine, and so won’t be surprised that I am pleased with Miya Tokumitsu’s new book on the topic, Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness (Regan Arts). With this punchy, sharp little book, Tokumitsu has done what might have seemed impossible: made labor conditions in the twenty-first century into a page-turner. I read it all in one day—nearly all in one sitting—and occasionally whispering “yes!” to strange looks from the other passengers on the train.
(I am not just saying any of this because she quotes me, though in the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that she does, and that I have been cheering for her since I found out this book was coming.)
In today’s world, it is a fact that fewer and fewer people have access to the kind of jobs that are considered “labors of love.” Alongside the fields that have always been difficult to enter and harder still to succeed in—the arts, Hollywood—are now formerly stable, middle-class positions like my own field of journalism. Casualization has hit even the august halls of academia, turning stable faculty jobs into part-time gigs for adjuncts who have all of the degrees (and debt) but none of the perks that those credentials were supposed to earn them.
Deindustrialization has been the story of the past few decades, but the heyday of the industrial middle class, at least, didn’t rest on convincing factory workers that they loved their jobs. The work was hard, but took place within a certain set of parameters that were supposed to provide a decent living. You did what you loved on the weekends and on the vacations that your union contract provided, not on the factory floor. But to comfort those who lost even that stability, we’ve been handed the myth, instead, of the “knowledge economy.” It will of course accept fewer people, but the story goes that those who make it will be rewarded with work that not only pays the bills, but feeds the soul as well.
The most striking point, to me, from Tokumitsu’s book is how easily the myth of “do what you love” cracks when you press on it. The underlying message of such a myth, she writes, is that “each individual’s specialness will guide him or her to work that he or she enjoys and that also happens to support, at the very least, an upper-middle-class existence. Central to this enjoyment is that the work allows a worker’s specialness to be constantly showcased, and thus recognized, honored, monetized.” Except that often, when we demand to be paid decently and enjoy our work, we are often told that the work itself is its own reward, that we should consider ourselves lucky to have a job at all, considering all the people out there who don’t have one at all, or who are busy flipping burgers.
Do what you love is the ultimate individualist myth, one that normalizes a world in which most people have jobs that are just barely this side of tolerable, because if we are special enough, hardworking enough, and love the work enough, we will make our way to the top. The flip side of this, Tokumitsu notes, is that those who didn’t make it didn’t love the work enough. Or just plain weren’t special enough. “In order to maintain the belief that go-getterism really works,” she writes, “we must turn away from workers for whom it doesn’t.”
Helping the veneer of the do-what-you-love myth crack in the past few years have been movements of low-wage workers, people whose work few people expect them to love. Refusing to be invisible, the fast-food workers and Walmart workers have gone on strike, demanded attention and demanded fair compensation in the face of sneers that they’re just burger flippers. For those at the top, riches and labors of love; for those at the bottom, stove burns, unpredictable hours, low wages, and the scorn of those just a few steps higher on the economic ladder. By refusing to give in to that scorn and demanding that work be recognized as worthy of pay whether it be lovable, admirable, or not, these movements remind us that at the end of the day, we all work a job in order to get paid.
The service economy in particular requires workers to pretend that they love their work no matter how much they hate it, no matter how rude the customer is. Their emotions themselves are part of the job, what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild deemed “emotional labor”—the work of making other people think you’re happy in order to make them happy, too. Indeed, it’s one of the deepest ironies of the do-what-you-love age, that one of the joys of the very prestigious, autonomous work that is most likely to be publicly considered a labor of love is that your job does not depend on your ability to appear as if you like it.
For those who come from wealth, who are liberated from the need to worry about paying the bills, what to do to fill each day may indeed be a real choice made solely based on what will bring them the most pleasure. For the rest of us, Tokumitsu reminds, “As long as our well-being depends on income, and income, for most, depends on work, love will always be secondary as a motivation for doing it. Encouraging workers to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and exploitative.”
And yet the desire to do what we love is a deep and real one for most people. It is a desire that, if we follow it to its logical conclusion, is actually much more revolutionary than neoliberal capitalism would let on. The workers of the eight-hour-day labor movement over 100 years ago called for “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.” Today, it would be good to expand upon that demand, calling for more time for “what we will.”
In her famous 1975 salvo “Wages Against Housework,” feminist Silvia Federici wrote: “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known.” Taking a page from Federici’s book, we must call work what it is, in order to discover what, exactly, freed from the demands of making money, we will really do for love.
Sarah Jaffe is a fellow at the Nation Institute and an independent journalist. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent’s Belabored podcast, as well as a member of Dissent’s editorial board. She is currently working on a book about social movements since the financial crisis.