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The Myth of “Loving What You Do” Has Ruined Modern Work for Everyone

"Love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life," or so the old adage goes. Except that's not really true, is it?

“Love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” Or so the old adage goes. That phrase has been pummeled into our heads — and is even the slogan for a popular co-working space, printed on t-shirts and hats, an ethos in and of itself. For most people, that phrase is a load of crap, and it’s a harmful load of crap, too. After all, as long as people wonder how to find a job you love, they’ll never actually step in to make the job that they have a better one. “Do what you love, love what you do” is a fantasy of modern work that keeps people from understanding the ways in which they could make work better for themselves and their coworkers.

After all, the implication that “loving what you do” carries is that if you find something that stokes your passion, then frustration anger, or the rat-race struggle to get that promotion won’t actually feel like, well, work. It also has the pernicious effect of making money and benefits secondary to that passion — rather than the benefit of work itself. This type of thinking, however, pervades the modern workplace. And it’s making work worse than ever. 

“Work is awful,” says Sarah Jaffe, labor reporter and author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Work was awful before the pandemic, and the pandemic has just made work even worse.”

In her new book, Jaffe traces the death of typical factory jobs and the rise of care work (from service industry jobs, which account for the majority of work, to health care work) and emotional labor to the rising attitude that employees should love what they do to make their livings. Jaffe says that emotional labor is the hallmark of most middle-class jobs — whether you work in an office or as a nurse.

While that’s perfectly fine, it has led to an expectation that everyone is passionate about their 9-5’s. This false notion makes it seem like the job — not the salary, not the benefits, not the ability to stay home with your kids — is the reward in and of itself. When the work becomes the reward, everyone gets screwed. We overwork, we get underpaid, and worst of all, we don’t see a way out. Parents, especially, are caught under the wheel that keeps turning.

Fatherly spoke to Jaffe about work, emotional labor, and if there’s any way to escape the trap modern life has created for employees. 

So, where did “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life” come from?

I locate that phenomenon in two places. One of those is the unpaid work in the home that has traditionally been done by women, and the other one is the history of art and creative work. 

In particular, I think it’s interesting to look at the work of care and of keeping house in a variety of ways. What the pandemic has done, in throwing a lot of people out of work entirely, and other people into working at home, is make those things really clear. The work that has to be done at home just to make the house run — not just sitting at your desk and writing an article or working on a project for your paid job — but laundry, and dusting, and cleaning, and if you have children, there’s an incredible amount of work in taking care of children.

There’s a history of Marxist feminist thinking that talks about this as the labor of social reproduction. Not only are you reproducing literally, but you also produce the next generation of people who will go to work and make money for some boss. This work has traditionally not been paid, and this work actually is the work that makes all of the rest of capitalist accumulation possible. If we didn’t work in the home — taking care of our kids, feeding our husbands who go to work, feeding ourselves who go to work —  if we didn’t do that, and if we didn’t do that mostly for free, the whole thing wouldn’t function.

Right. Modern society depends on the unpaid labor of moms and dads. 

We’re seeing that now, with more women leaving their jobs to do housework full time. More women are still doing most of the work, even with both parents if you’re in a heterosexual couple, at home. The weight of the pandemic has really fallen on the shoulders of women’s care work. 

Your book draws a clear line between the unpaid labor that exists in the home and the death of factory jobs to the care working jobs that began to replace them. What is care work, to you?  

The biggest sector of our economy now is, broadly stated, service work. That includes everything from Wall Street to home health care. And if you narrow that down to caring labor, in particular, it’s usually defined as work where you have responsibilities for the wellbeing of someone else. 

But there are more and more jobs in particular in things like childcare and home health care. Home health care is projected to add the most workers in the economy going forward.

Absolutely. 

I am currently staying in an apartment in Brooklyn that has a doorman. Doormen have to memorize faces, sign for your packages, handle people if they’re difficult at the front desk, they have to do security. They have to do a whole lot of work, not all of which is caring work, but could still fall into that. So there are tons and tons of jobs that would fall under what we consider “emotional labor,” right? Arlie Hochschild famously defined that as “the work of controlling your own emotions in order to produce an emotional state in someone else.” 

Hochschild wrote about it originally, researching flight attendants and also debt collectors, which I think is really interesting. We often think about emotional labor in terms of caring and making someone smile, but debt collectors had to psych themselves up to be mean to people.

Here’s the thing: when factory work was the dominant form of work, you didn’t have to do [any emotional or affective labor]. You had to do it if your boss came around and he was a jerk to you. You probably couldn’t get away with flipping your boss off and calling him names. But most of the day you didn’t have to smile, or frown, at the machine. You just had to do the thing however many times an hour you were lifting up a drill to drill that thing over and over again. It didn’t matter what your face looked like. It didn’t matter what you were feeling at that moment.

What’s taken up the space of the economy, sometimes literally, is care work. 

How does the idea of needing to love what you do play out in the workplace? 

I would say you don’t have to love what you do, but you are probably expected to. Your job application, when you filled it out, probably calls for some form of a passionate individual taking the job. And when you interviewed, you probably had to convince your boss that you were the most excited to work at XYZ to work at this advertising firm than everyone has ever been.

Yeah, that’s often a big part of the job interview. 

I remember when I applied to work at a restaurant many years ago. The manager asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I was like, “dude, I just need to pay my bills.”

When you get your professional job, you have probably gone to college, right? You have studied something that is somewhat relevant to the job you are trying to get, you probably also have debt. A part of you thought this job will be fun, or that at least it will suck less than some other thing you could do.

I have a very good friend who was an artist when I knew him. He was an incredible artist. A painter, photographer. But he works in advertising. And I remember him saying to me, “this is as far as I can sell out.” He married a woman who made a lot more money than him, she worked in finance. He was like, “I could do what she does — but advertising at least allows me to do creative work while making enough money to have a nice house and support kids and be a good dad and all of the things you want to do when you are a person who exists in the world and is told that that is the right way to exist in the world.” So, he doesn’t love his job, but he doesn’t hate it.

A lot of people wouldn’t say they love their jobs. 

Most of us do hate our jobs at some points, which is another point I wanted to make with the book. I like what I do, but it’s still work, and it’s exhausting, and I do it because I have to pay the bills. If you have a middle-class professional job, you are expected to at least pretend to like it. You are certainly required to put a lot of effort into getting good at it. 

And it helps if you actually enjoy at least some of it. The fact at all that we are expected to like our jobs, makes it easier to pay us less, and treat us like crap. 

Why does the expectation that we like our jobs make it easier to pay us like crap?

Because the job, in itself, is its own reward. But we work to get paid. But you cannot say that.  

You can’t say, in an interview, if they ask, “What’s the most attractive thing to you about this job?” “Well, you’ll pay me a six-figure salary.” You’d get the boot. You can’t do that. You have to be obsequious to your boss about how much you really really love the idea of working for whatever company it is.

So, the expectation that we love what we do, and act like we love what we do, makes us exploitable? Where does emotional labor come into play here?

Emotional labor alienates us from our relationships with one another, and with other people. It hurts our ability to organize on the job to actually make the job better, which is the real answer to, “my job sucks, what do I do about it?”

When you’re competing with 200, or in pandemic times, 700 other people, who want the same middle management marketing position or whatever it is, you know that those people are out there. You know that if you make any demands about making a good job better if you are on lockdown with three kids and your partner who has a full-time job and you tell your boss, “Look, I can’t do a 7 a.m. Zoom because I have to get my kids fed before they have to sit down to do Zoom school all day long,” your boss can say, “Well, have you looked at the employment rate lately?” You are going to be on that Zoom call. 

Right. 

These demands get bigger and bigger. Working from home expands the way that work has already taken over our lives. When you’re expected to love your work, your work bleeds into everything. The way that the labor of love is the carrot in the equation, and that ongoing high unemployment rate continues to be the stick… 

If you push back, there’s always the fear that someone more flexible, more dedicated, and more passionate than you is waiting. 

Right.

So you’re saying that fear drives a lot of people to alienate one another instead of work together.

And, if you’re all competing with each other for that job and you work at a place with 200 other people and there’s an internal promotion coming up and 13 of you could possibly get that promotion and you’re all competing against each other for that promotion, you’re probably not going to sit around and say, “Maybe we should unionize, and all get what amounts to a promotion.”

Months ago, my colleagues and I were discussing the CARES Act provision that allowed parents and caretakers to take paid leave. We felt like no one was possibly going to take it — not right now, just because the unemployment rate is so high — and if they got fired for taking it, what is their possible response to that? 

What ends up happening in most cases is people end up going to get another job. If you don’t like your job, you can find another one, right? That’s the common thing. It’s not, “If you don’t like your job, you should get together with your colleagues and make it suck a little bit less.” 

So, how do we change this expectation that we are supposed to love what we do?

You overthrow the capitalist mode of production. 

Ha!

I’m kind of not kidding when I say there’s not really an answer to it beyond that. 

That doesn’t offer too much hope, then. 

I actually think that in this particular moment, we have a real opportunity to talk about our relationship with work as a society. In talking about essential and non-essential work, and all of these things, we’ve actually kind of done a massive global experiment in terms of, “What do we actually need to do as humans in order to survive? What actually needs to be done in social reproduction work — ranging from working in an Amazon warehouse to being a nurse in a COVID ward?”

We have had this massive conversation about it, and we have massively high unemployment numbers. We also, by the way, have a climate crisis blooming, that one of the best ways to have less carbon emissions is to work less and produce less and to take more time off. 

Because of all this, I think this is a really important moment to talk about how work kind of sucks. Even this job you might have liked when you went to an office and you liked your coworkers, whether you were competing for the internal promotion or not, and you got to leave our house and do something different, now that you’re stuck in a desk at your room all day while you’re trying to spend 5 minutes with your kids, and the time you spend with your kids is no longer fun because that is just being revealed as more work — all of it is so freaking exhausting — if you’ve still got a job [at all]. 

Do you have any hope?

At the beginning of this, the US government mailed a $1,200 check to everyone. It turns out, you can do that. Turns out, there’s no reason you can’t do that, other than the political will isn’t there, which is why they haven’t done it yet. Because of COVID, we’ve actually seen that a whole lot of things can change very quickly.

We can all do less work. There will still be work needed to perpetuate society. The work needed to complete social reproduction will always have to go on. But, what we have now is a system, especially right now, where millions of people who have no jobs at all. We have millions more people who are working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

And then we have other people who are working in their home offices, for 12-13 hours a week longer than they were before the pandemic. None of that has to be necessary. There’s a massive difference between the things that need to be done vs. all of this work that really doesn’t need to be done — especially when the continued doing of which is actually setting the planet on fire.

We’re in a moment where things that were imaginary, wild, radical, crazy ideas eight months ago, have now been done. 

The UK’s government furlough scheme pays people 80 percent of their wage to not work for several months. The US government paid extra unemployment. People can actually have a liveable amount of money without having to go to work. We’ve had experiments in basic income, in shorter working hours, and all of these things. These things are possible. That’s what I think is necessary, much more than evaluating your personal relationship in whether or not you like your job. You can change your relationship to work in a material sense, not just in an emotional sense.