Work Won’t Love You Back | Sarah Jaffe

Summary of: Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone
By: Sarah Jaffe


In the summary of Sarah Jaffe’s ‘Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone’, we delve into the recent development of labors-of-love work ethic where employees are expected to be passionate, dedicated, and enthusiastic about their work. The book tracks the historical transformation of the labor market, from the Fordist compromise in the early-to-mid twentieth century to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. Jaffe highlights the two gendered spheres of labor, ‘care work’ and ‘creative work’, and how they align with the labor-of-love ethic.

The Labor-of-Love Ethic

The idea of a “good job” has evolved over the years, where employers now expect employees to find emotional fulfillment and take on sacrificial behaviors for their work. This is known as the labor-of-love ethic, a set of norms that many workers have internalized as an ideal. The labor-of-love ethic is a recent development, and in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, a good job provided enough free time, resources, and stability, with many belonging to unions to exercise their collective bargaining power. The Fordist compromise marked a truce between workers and employers, where the workday was reduced to eight hours, weekends were work-free, and a single-income earner could support a family. However, this truce was short-lived, and the labor-of-love ethic emerged as a new work ethic.

Neoliberalism: A Shift in Economic Ideology

The Fordist compromise gave way to neoliberalism when capitalist-driven desires to maximize profits took over. Neoliberalism crushed labor unions, defunded government social welfare programs, and forced employees to work harder for less pay and fewer benefits. This shift also opened up waged labor to middle-class white women and caused the deindustrialization, deunionization, feminization, and racial diversification of the job market.

The Fordist compromise, established after periods of labor unrest, had created a stable transactional relationship between employers and workers. However, as social changes took place during the 1960s, employers became increasingly frustrated with the concessions workers won, which they felt weakened their ability to generate bigger profits. This capitalist-driven desire eventually led to the unraveling of the Fordist compromise and the rise of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism saw businesses aggressively pursuing the goal of maximizing their profits. This resulted in the crushing of labor unions, defunding or privatization of government social welfare programs, and forcing employees to work harder for less pay and fewer benefits. Furthermore, unionized factory jobs were automated or outsourced, while productivity goals were raised. As a result, the present global economy operates under the tenets of neoliberalism.

The shift from Fordism to neoliberalism was not without its consequences. While the Fordist compromise had been enjoyed mainly by white male workers, those not included in the bargain saw waged labor as a means of liberation and fulfillment. However, with the rise of neoliberalism, the family wage feature was scuppered, and white working-class and lower-middle-class women could no longer depend on the income of male partners. This led to millions of white women joining women of color in low-paid service sector jobs.

Governments with leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan pushed the neoliberal agenda to full throttle, resulting in the creation of low-wage, precarious jobs in the service and retail sectors that were performed by mostly women and people of color who had been fighting to change these conditions for decades. This shift also caused the deindustrialization, deunionization, feminization, and racial diversification of the job market.

The Labor-of-Love Ethic in Modern Work

The modern world of work can be divided into two spheres: care work and creative work. Care work involves any labor centered around caring for others, while creative work is centered around creating something. Women primarily work in care jobs, while men dominate creative work. These stereotypes are not accurate, but they align with the labor-of-love ethic that dictates that care work requires sacrifice to others, while creative work demands devotion to a craft. Therefore, care work is directed towards other people, and creative work is directed towards the craft or activity of the work itself.

The Labor-of-Love Ethic: Justification for Less Pay and Benefits

The labor-of-love ethic justifies the demand for longer work hours, reduced benefits, and lower pay since the 1970s. According to this ideology, work should be fulfilling, and people should invest their hearts and souls into their jobs, with passion and dedication. The demise of the Fordist compromise in the 1970s led to stagnating or declining wages and rolled back benefits. Employers are demanding more from their workers, including cheerful customer service, sacrifices of personal life, and treating the client’s family as their own. Multiple part-time jobs with irregular schedules are a common occurrence. The tech industry, a high-paying and well-treated sector, routinely requires its employees to work up to 85 hours per week.

The Devaluation of Work under the Labor-of-Love Ethic

The labor-of-love ethic holds that work should be its own reward, ignoring the value of compensation and reasonable work hours. This devalues work and manipulates love to exploit workers. Gender stereotypes play a role as women’s work is devalued as caregiving, while male artists’ work is seen as frivolous. This mentality leads to the belief that workers should be grateful just to have a job and should love what they do, regardless of their feelings. Those who don’t comply are seen as expendable. The labor-of-love ethic thus exploits emotions to justify exploitation in the workplace.

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