“You don’t have to like it,” my late father would tell my siblings and me when we complained about our jobs. “That’s why it’s called work.” His career began in typewriter repair in the 1950s and, after a string of promotions, layoffs, and lateral moves, ended in middle management for a chain of grocery stores. He didn’t have to love his job; he loved us. By showing up to the office every day, he kept his family warm, fed, and educated. For him, that was enough.
Over the past few decades, this ethos of cheerless duty has been overtaken by the imperative to love your work. Graduation speakers, human resources departments, and motivational memes keep telling us we ought to merge passion with profession. But work remains stubbornly unlovable. Especially for workers in the United States, the hours are long, wages have not remotely kept up with productivity, and job security is minimal. What’s worse, as the labor journalist Sarah Jaffe shows in her illuminating and inspiring new book, Work Won’t Love You Back, employers across industries have appealed to the myth that work is love to justify these very conditions. “The labor of love, in short, is a con,” Jaffe writes.
In her account, the labor-of-love ethos takes two forms. In one version, love is care for others, epitomized in the stereotype of maternal love and often expected of workers in female-dominated professions like teaching, childcare, and customer service. In the other version, love is the passion of a creative genius, the person who is devoted to their craft for its own sake. The bargain offered to the “creative class” of highly educated postindustrial workers was that “work would be exciting, fulfilling, creative, a place for self-expression, but you had to give up knowing where your next check was coming from,” Jaffe writes. The unfairness of this bargain hits especially hard for women artists, academics, and athletes. Because the genius is historically a male figure, women in creative fields are more often expected to labor for little or no pay than are their male peers. It is the male-dominated fields of engineering and technology that offer paid internships, according to Jaffe, while teaching and nursing do not. Fashion and media companies have even auctioned off internships to the highest bidder.