Work Won't Love You Back

How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone


By Sarah Jaffe

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A deeply-reported examination of why "doing what you love" is a recipe for exploitation, creating a new tyranny of work in which we cheerily acquiesce to doing jobs that take over our lives.

You're told that if you "do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life." Whether it's working for "exposure" and "experience," or enduring poor treatment in the name of "being part of the family," all employees are pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do what we love.

In Work Won't Love You Back, Sarah Jaffe, a preeminent voice on labor, inequality, and social movements, examines this "labor of love" myth—the idea that certain work is not really work, and therefore should be done out of passion instead of pay. Told through the lives and experiences of workers in various industries—from the unpaid intern, to the overworked teacher, to the nonprofit worker and even the professional athlete—Jaffe reveals how all of us have been tricked into buying into a new tyranny of work.

As Jaffe argues, understanding the trap of the labor of love will empower us to work less and demand what our work is worth. And once freed from those binds, we can finally figure out what actually gives us joy, pleasure, and satisfaction.





Technically, I don’t have a job. I haven’t had one in a few years, since I left the last magazine that hired me full-time for a one-year stint as a staff writer. Since then, I have supported myself as a freelance journalist, to varying degrees of success. I travel, I report, I give the occasional talk, and mostly, I write. I meet fascinating people and get to share their stories with the world, and I actually, at least at the moment, make a living at it.

I also make about $15,000 less a year than the average woman my age with my level of education.1

I am the poster child for work in today’s economy. I’m flexible, working on the fly from a laptop in coffee shops around the country and occasionally the world. I don’t have an employer that pays for my health insurance, and forget about retirement benefits. Vacation? What’s that? I have none of the things that used to signify a stable adult life—no family, no property, just me and a dog. (On the upside, I don’t have a boss, either.)

This book isn’t about me, though. It is about the millions of people around the world who share some or even most of my working conditions, even if they’ve managed to snag a good old-fashioned full-time job. So many features of what people used to consider “employment security” are gone, melted into air. Instead, as a thousand articles and nearly as many books have told us over and over, we’re all exhausted, burned out, overworked, underpaid, and have no work-life balance (or just no life).

At the same time, we’ve been told that work itself is supposed to bring us fulfillment, pleasure, meaning, even joy. We’re supposed to work for the love of it, and how dare we ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay rent and barely see our friends.

Like so many things about late capitalism, the admonishment of a thousand inspirational social media posts to “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” has become folk wisdom, its truthiness presumably everlasting—stretching back to our caveperson ancestors, who I suppose really enjoyed all that mammoth hunting or whatever. Instead of “never working,” the reality is that we work longer hours than ever, and we’re expected to be available even when technically off the clock. All this creates stress, anxiety, and loneliness. The labor of love, in short, is a con.2

But the expectation that we will love our jobs isn’t actually all that old. Once upon a time, it was assumed, to put it bluntly, that work sucked, and that people would avoid it if at all humanly possible. From the feudal system until about thirty or forty years ago, the ruling class tended to live off its wealth. The ancient Greeks had slaves and banausoi—a lower class of workers, including manual laborers, skilled artisans, and tradespeople—to do the work so that the upper classes could enjoy their leisure time and participate in community life. If you’ve ever read a Jane Austen novel and wondered how those people who don’t seem to do much of anything (except hem and haw about whom to marry) got by, you get the general picture. Work, to the wealthy, was for someone else to do.3

Since the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a shift. The ownership class these days does tend to work, and indeed, to make a fetish of its long hours. But the real change has come in the lives of those of us who don’t make millions. It’s become especially important that we believe that the work itself is something to love. If we recalled why we work in the first place—to pay the bills—we might wonder why we’re working so much for so little.4

People have long considered the question of whether work should be enjoyable. In the 1800s, socialist and artisan William Morris wrote of the three hopes that might make work worth doing—“hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” Morris acknowledged that the idea of pleasurable work might seem strange to most of his readers, but argued that the inequality that capitalism had wrought meant that some who did no work lived off the labor of others, who were condemned by this system to “useless toil.” Modern industry had taken away what little independence and power craftspeople might have had and reduced them to interchangeable, robotic wage laborers. No one cared whether the proletariat liked its work—it wasn’t given a choice in the matter.5

But those proletarians, too, usually tried their hardest to escape work. The labor movement’s earliest demands were usually for less work—shorter working hours, down to twelve, then eleven, then ten, then eight, plus days off. The strike, the workers’ best weapon, is, after all, a refusal of work, and for a while they wielded it effectively, winning some concessions on the length of the working day and week as well as on wages. Capitalists would give up a little here and there to keep the profits flowing, but they also sought new strategies to keep workers on track beyond simple brute force.6

The carrot that was eventually offered to the industrial working class was what is often called the Fordist compromise, named, of course, after Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company. Workers would give up a large chunk of their time, but a manageable one—generally five eight-hour days of work a week—to the boss and in return they would get a decent paycheck, health care (either provided by the company, in the United States, or, in other countries, provided by the state), and maybe some paid holidays and a pension to retire on. It was Morris’s “hope of rest”—and, if not actually the hope of controlling one’s product, at least some financial remuneration—that provided workers with some ability to support themselves, and maybe a family, and to enjoy themselves in their time off the shop floor.7

This might be hard for some of us to imagine, now, as we sneak in time to read between checking work emails or waiting on call for the next shift. And it’s certainly not something to romanticize—work was often both grinding and dull, and workers often too tired to enjoy their hard-won free time. But it allowed for a brief period of stability, from the end of the Great Depression until the 1960s, nostalgia for which still haunts us today.

Like most compromises, the Fordist bargain had left both sides vaguely unsatisfied, and it was held steady largely by repeated strikes from the workers on one side and repeated attempts by the bosses to unpick it on the other. But it was a deal that the ownership class had more or less gone along with when times were good and profits high enough that they didn’t mind the sharing too much. It was less appealing when crisis struck in the 1970s. “By the 1970s, the dynamism the system had displayed in the immediate postwar decades was exhausted, worn down by multiple political challenges and institutional sclerosis,” explained economist James Meadway. The solution to this problem, for capital, was to squeeze labor harder. Companies closed factories in high-wage countries and moved them to places where they could pay a fraction of the rates workers commanded in the United States or the United Kingdom. Working hours began to creep upward, and incomes down; more families relied on two incomes, and with two working parents, no one had time to do the housework.8

By 2016, the United States had hemorrhaged enough industrial jobs that Donald Trump made them a focus of his pitch to “Make America Great Again.” In 2017, after he became president, I went to Indianapolis to visit the Carrier plant. The factory, which had been slated to shut down in 2016, had been a campaign focal point for Trump’s promise to bring good jobs back. When he won, he returned to Carrier to declare “Mission Accomplished,” telling the workers that he’d cut a deal to keep their plant open. But when I arrived, the Rexnord plant around the corner was closing. Those workers didn’t get a visit from the president as their jobs disappeared; nor did the workers in Lordstown, Ohio, where the General Motors plant closed in March 2019.

The workers I spoke to in Indiana and Ohio all wanted to keep the plants open, but none of them waxed lyrical about their jobs. They hadn’t taken those positions to find fulfillment; they took them to find a paycheck. They took them for the weekends they’d have off, the homes they’d be able to buy. When I asked what they’d miss about their jobs, none of them said the work itself—they spoke of coworkers so close they’d become like family, of after-shift beers at the bar across the street, and of the solidarity that came from being active in their union (solidarity that brought them to the picket lines in GM’s 2019 strike even after the plant had been closed for months). But mostly, they spoke of money, of the reality that losing a $26-an-hour job (plus overtime) meant a serious downgrade in their standard of living.

Looming outside the Carrier plant were Amazon and Target distribution centers, the likely future of work for some of the folks let go from their union jobs. The distribution center or warehouse job has become synonymous with misery these days: stories abound of workers having to urinate into bottles because they’re not allowed enough restroom breaks, being tracked around the facility via GPS, or popping Advil like candy to deal with the aches and pains. Yet even Amazon, in denying the reports of hellish conditions written up by journalist Emily Guendelsberger, touts its “passionate employees, whose pride and commitment are what make the Amazon customer experience great.”9

The global pandemic in 2020 just made the brutality of the workplace more visible. The amount of people employed in manufacturing worldwide has shrunk, but still the work is done, and more and more of it for pennies and without union protections. Women and children labor in deadly conditions in factories in places like Bangladesh, where the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013 killed 1,132 workers and injured more than 2,000 more. The day-to-day conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers—or, say, the workers who assemble iPhones at the Foxconn plant in China—range from tedious to backbreaking to deadly. Few seriously expect such workers to like their jobs, though they might face pressure to smile for the factory inspectors on the rare occasions they come around.10

Coal miners and factory workers have been described in many an article, laden with stereotypes, as Trump’s base, layering a thick sheen of romance over what was and remains miserable work. George Orwell famously described the coal mines of Wigan, outside Manchester, England, as “like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell.” GM workers at the Linden plant in New Jersey told sociologist Ruth Milkman that the place was “like prison”; at Lordstown, they called management “the little SS or the Gestapo.” Chuckie Denison, recently retired from Lordstown, told me “on the plant floor, there was basically a war on the workers.” Those jobs, Milkman explained, had been good because they had been union jobs, not because workers’ actual day-to-day experience was anything other than “relentless and dehumanizing.”11

That process of standardization and control was designed to reduce workers down to interchangeable cogs—so interchangeable that shutting down a factory in Indianapolis and opening it in Mexico or Bangladesh, where labor is cheaper, is easy. Or interchangeable enough to be replaced utterly by machines.

But the process of outsourcing or automating these jobs out of expensive locations like the United States and Western Europe has shifted the nature of work in those rich countries and resulted, strangely enough, in employers seeking out those very human traits that industrial capitalism had tried so hard to strip away. Those human traits—creativity, “people skills,” caring—are what employers seek to exploit in the jobs we’re supposed to love. Exercising them is what is supposed to make work less miserable, but instead it has helped work to worm its way deeper into every facet of our lives.12

The political project that brought us here is known as neoliberalism, though it sometimes goes by other names: post-Fordism, maybe, or just “late capitalism.” As political philosopher Asad Haider explained, “neoliberalism… is really two quite specific things: first, a state-driven process of social, political, and economic restructuring that emerged in response to the crisis of postwar capitalism, and second, an ideology of generating market relations through social engineering.” The success of the latter part of the project depended on twisting those desires for liberation articulated in the 1960s and 1970s, redefining “freedom” away from a positive concept (freedom to do things) and toward a negative one (freedom from interference). Neoliberalism encourages us to think that everything we want and need must be found with a price tag attached.13

Neoliberalism didn’t just happen; it was a set of choices made by the winning side in a series of struggles. The victors remade the state to subject everything to competition; to enforce private property rights; and to protect the right of individuals to accumulate. Public services were sold off to private profiteers. Citizens became customers. Freedom was there, the neoliberals argued, you just had to purchase it.14

Neoliberalism was born in Chile in 1973, when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratic socialist Salvador Allende and, with the advice of American economists, reorganized the economy by force. That year also brought oil shocks and a global downturn, a collapse in asset values, and the beginnings of a crisis for capitalism—unemployment and inflation were both rising, and social movements were demanding change. In that context, Pinochet cleared the way for neoliberalism with brutality and torture, despite the claims of “freedom.”15

Despite the violence at its heart, neoliberalism would spread from Chile with the support of democratically elected governments. Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister in the United Kingdom in 1979, set out to crush unions and destroy the very idea of solidarity. She sold off public utilities and state-owned enterprises and turned public housing into private condos. To people who had little, Thatcherism offered the pleasures of cruelty, the negative solidarity of seeing others made even worse off than themselves by cuts to the welfare state. “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul,” Thatcher said.16

Thatcher is most famous, perhaps, for her declaration that “there is no alternative.” She meant it as a preference—communism was still kicking at the time, and social democracy still had a grip on much of Europe. But TINA was the foundation of the phenomenon the British theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”—the idea that it is impossible to imagine any other way that the world could be organized. Neoliberalism relies on such realism, even when—or perhaps especially when—it is faltering.17

In the United States, Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker’s “shock” in 1980, limiting the money supply and hiking interest rates, put tens of thousands of companies out of business. Cities like Youngstown, Ohio, saw more than one in five people out of work. Thatcher’s buddy Ronald Reagan won office that year and followed her path, slashing tax rates and breaking the air-traffic controllers’ union. The economic and political crisis of the 1970s had begun the process of deindustrialization, and Thatcher, Volcker, and Reagan stepped on the accelerator. Production was shut down in the rich countries and shipped elsewhere or automated. Autoworkers, used to calling strikes to halt production to make demands, were suddenly put in the position of calling for plants to be kept open. Joshua Clover, in his book Riot, Strike, Riot, called this “the affirmation trap”: a situation where “labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival.” It is a short step from the affirmation trap to the labor of love.18

The jobs that replaced the factory jobs were in retail, in health care, and in services and technology. We hear a lot about the knowledge economy, about the exciting creative work we could be doing, but we’re all far more likely to be in some sort of service job. These jobs come with their own affirmation trap: you must show up with a smile on your face or be tossed out.19

The ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace function, paradoxically, as a mechanism for justifying inequality. The choice is yours, but so are the costs for choosing wrong. Cuts to the welfare state mean that those costs can be deadly. This kind of freedom, as political theorist Adam Kotsko wrote, is also a trap, an “apparatus for generating blameworthiness.”20

This dynamic is always individualizing—your situation in life must be the result of choices that you made, and thus no one else has any reason to sympathize, let alone to help, if you fall. Privatization, as Fisher noted, has brought with it the privatization of stress, the proliferation of depression, and a rise in anxiety. If you cannot get a job, it must be because you failed to do enough (unpaid) work to acquire the correct skills; if you get that job and it makes you miserable, just get another! Such discourse justifies the constant job-hopping that provides companies with what they want: just-in-time labor, easily hired and fired, easily controlled.21

There’s another famous Thatcherism for this process, usually paraphrased as “There is no such thing as society,” though what she actually said was: “… who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Without a society, with the lines between the family and the workplace blurring, with little time for a personal life anyway, we are even more likely to try to make work more pleasurable, even to seek in it a replacement for the love we lack elsewhere. Over and over again while reporting this book, I spoke to workers who told me that their bosses described the workplace as “like a family.” One video-game company even brands itself a “fampany.” If we fail to love our work, it becomes another form of individual shame. Love, after all, is supposed to be an unlimited resource that lives within us: If the workplace is a family, shouldn’t we naturally love it?22

Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity. Thatcher’s statement that there was no such thing as society came after she had crushed labor unions, those vehicles not just of shop-floor action but off-the-clock sociality. If workers have a one-on-one love relationship with the job, then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or to try harder. It is not to organize with your coworkers to demand better. Collective action is unthinkable; the only answer is to work harder on yourself or to leave.23

Yet the coercion behind the mask of love is becoming more visible these days, and workers are beginning to act again. The popularity of the concept of “burnout”—for what is burnout but the feeling experienced when one’s labor of love is anything but—reminds us of this. Repeated cycles of layoffs, steady low wages, and cutbacks to the private sector have made jobs harder and harder to love. The conditions under which “essential” workers had to report to the job during the coronavirus pandemic revealed the coercion at the heart of the labor relation. We are being punished for all the choices we have made even as we have continued to do what we are told—racking up student debt, working longer hours, answering work emails on our phones from parties, funerals, and bed, and doing more, always, with less.24

Neoliberalism relies on the labor of love ideology to cover up the coercion that was in fact required to push people into the workplace at the origin of capitalism. Yet these days the violence is more visible, and the rebellions—from Chile to Quebec to Chicago, and including climate strikes on every continent—are louder, too. Neoliberalism tried to sell us on freedom not from work but through work. But a glance at today’s streets would seem to imply that we are no longer buying.25

The simple reality of work under capitalism is that the worker doesn’t control much of anything on the job. That fact doesn’t change if the job is more or less pleasant, or if wages increase by a dollar an hour or by ten dollars an hour. The concept of alienation isn’t about your feelings; it’s about whether you have the power to decide where and how hard you will work, and whether you will control the thing you make or the service you provide.26

Labor is required for value to be produced and capital accumulated, but that labor, as we’ve noted, is all too often likely to rebel against the process. Labor, after all, is us: messy, desiring, hungry, lonely, angry, frustrated human beings. We may be free to quit our jobs and find ones that we like better, as the mantra goes, but in practice that freedom is constrained by our need to eat, to have someplace to sleep, to have health care. Our place in the hierarchy of capitalist society is decided not by how hard we work but by any number of elements out of our control, including race, gender, and nationality. Work, as political theorist Kathi Weeks wrote, is a way that we are produced as social and political subjects.27

Work, in other words, helps to tell us how to be. And changes in the shape of the workplace, in the shape of capitalism itself, have changed our expectations for what our lives will be like, for where and how we will find fulfillment. The concept of a “good” job is one that has changed over time and through struggle, a point we would do well to remember.

THE IDEA THAT WORK SHOULD BE A SOURCE OF FULFILLMENT HAS BECOME common sense in our world, to the extent that saying otherwise is an act of rebellion. The Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci reminded us that common sense itself is a product of history, that popular beliefs are in fact material forces, and they change when material conditions change. His concept of hegemony explains to us how one group comes to arrange the world in its own interests, through culture and ideas as well as material forces. Hegemony is the process by which we are made to consent to the power structures that shape our lives.28

The thing about common sense is that it’s often wrong. And we may even be aware on some level that it’s wrong. You are, after all, reading this book because something told you that maybe, just maybe, the problem is not you, it’s work. But we don’t have to truly believe in order to consent. Many of us simply act as if we believe, and that is enough.29

Max Weber famously wrote of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the way that the rise of Protestantism lent a belief in hard work as a calling and deferred gratification (in Heaven) to the developing capitalism of the time. The first spirit of capitalism valued above all the accumulation of more and more money for its own sake, not for the sake of consumption. Consumption and other forms of pleasure were, in fact, to be avoided. One worked to be good, not to be happy. This process may have started with the church, but it had long since become common sense, Weber wrote. “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.”30

French scholars Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have built on Weber to argue that the spirit of capitalism has changed over time, bringing with it new versions of the work ethic. The spirit of capitalism of each age, they wrote, must answer three questions: How will people secure a living for themselves and their families? How do they find enthusiasm for the process of accumulation, even if they are not going to pocket the profits? And how can they justify the system and defend it against accusations of injustice?31

Justification of capitalism is necessary because people do challenge it. People look at its processes and see the inequality that has resulted. They rebel: they strike, they riot, they refuse to go quietly to work. Those challenges then force crises and changes in the system, which has to adapt, to find new justifications, new mechanisms by which we will consent to keep working. Those struggles spill over from the workplace into the rest of our lives. Political philosopher Nancy Fraser calls them “boundary struggles,” battles over the lines between economy and society, production and reproduction, work and family.32

In the shifts created by these struggles, new work ethics and new spirits of capitalism emerge. We know the spirit of the Fordist bargain—it’s the one depicted in a thousand nostalgic stories, where workers like Chuckie Denison went to the factory and came home to a family and had weekends off, vacations, and decent benefits. That family could afford to buy nice things on one income: a worker in the factory would have a wife in the home who did the work of looking after the children and shopping for the things the family needed. This was the era of the family wage, the “organization man,” the suburbs. Unlike the Protestant ethic, the industrial ethic promised at least some goods to workers now, rather than what the Industrial Workers of the World used to call “pie in the sky when you die.” Work was a path to social mobility, but whether people enjoyed doing it was still beside the point.33

Something had to shift to get us from the industrial work ethic to today’s labor-of-love ethic, where we’re expected to enjoy work for its own sake. Today’s ideal workers are cheery and “flexible,” networked and net-savvy, creative and caring. They love their work but hop from job to job like serial monogamists; their hours stretch long and the line between the home and the workplace blurs. Security, the watchword of the industrial ethic, where workers spent a lifetime at one job and earned a pension on their way out the door, has been traded for fulfillment. And the things we used to keep for ourselves—indeed, the things the industrial workplace wanted to minimize—are suddenly in demand on the job, including our friendships, our feelings, and our love.34

Working people didn’t just wake up one day and decide that this was how they wanted to be; the new work ethic was born from shifts in global capitalism. The spread of “globalization” meant that the unpleasant work could be shoved out of the rich countries into the poor ones, where labor was cheaper and governments easier to bully out of regulation. Boltanski and Chiapello argued that capitalism changed, too, in response to the struggles of its critics, the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They identified two critiques: the “artistic” critique, which challenged the conformity of midcentury capitalism, decrying its fundamental boringness as oppressive; and the “social” critique, which focused on the fundamental inequalities of capitalist life, the way a few have their needs catered to while so many others, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore put it, face “organized abandonment.”35


On Sale
Jan 26, 2021
Page Count
432 pages
Bold Type Books

Sarah Jaffe

About the Author

Sarah Jaffe is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone, which Jane McAlevey called “a multiplex in still life; a stunning critique of capitalism, a collective conversation on the meaning of life and work, and a definite contribution to the we-won’t-settle-for-less demands of the future society everyone deserves,” and of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, both from Bold Type Books.

She is a Type Media Center reporting fellow and an independent journalist covering the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Nation, the Guardian, the Washington PostThe New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, as well as a columnist at The Progressive and New Labor Forum.

Sarah was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. She was a contributing editor on The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement is Changing America, from AlterNet books, as well as a contributor to the anthologies At the Tea Party and Tales of Two Cities, both from OR Books, and Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, from Picador. She was also the web director at GRITtv with Laura Flanders.

She was one of the first reporters to cover Occupy and the Fight for $15, has appeared on numerous radio and television programs to discuss topics ranging from electoral politics to Superstorm Sandy, from punk rock to public-sector unions.

She has a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia and a bachelor’s degree in English from Loyola University New Orleans. Sarah was born and raised in Massachusetts and has also lived in South Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania.

Learn more about this author