No Love Lost

NYRA talks to prominent labor journalist Sarah Jaffe about changing our views about work.

Illustration by PROPS SUPPLY

Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe has been writing about work for well over a decade. In her latest book, Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone (Hurst, 2021), she asserts that the idea of working out of love for one’s profession is dissolving. Even workers in creative fields, who might love their craft, still need the paycheck. In this interview with NYRA, Jaffe talks about what the labor-of-love myth is, how it applies to architects, and how it might finally disappear and make way for a different way of thinking about work.

NYRA: What led you to think about the topic of love and labor in the context of your book, Work Won’t Love You Back? How does gender play into that formulation?

Sarah Jaffe: It’s safe to say that the book comes from my thirteen years of work as a labor journalist. During that time, I was in the working world as a woman myself, working first in the service industry and then as a journalist. It’s impossible not to notice the way gender affects how you’re treated. Indeed, so many people in the labor movement treated me as a less important labor reporter because I didn’t fit their idea of what a labor reporter ought to look like. As with many people who are doing gendered jobs, I sought out thinkers and writers on issues of gendered labor—like Selma James, Silvia Federici, Bethany Moreton, Eileen Boris, Ruth Milkman, and of course Barbara Ehrenreich and Liza Featherstone and Laura Flanders, without whom I’d never have been able to be a labor journalist in the first place.

NYRA: What is emotional or affective labor? Is it connected to precarious work?

SJ: Arlie Russell Hochschild defined emotional labor as labor that “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” In other words, it’s the work that you do to make other people feel a certain way, regardless of how you might feel about it. It’s the smile a server puts on in the restaurant while the customer makes a sexist joke, knowing that her tip depends on him staying happy. It’s the feeling of being cared for that a nurse produces in her patient, all the while she’s trying to get diagnostically relevant information from them.

It’s not that it’s specifically connected to precarious work. Plenty of non-precarious jobs (to the extent that any jobs are not precarious these days) require emotional labor too. And plenty of precarious jobs don’t (think of Amazon warehouse work that, however grueling it might be, probably doesn’t require you to smile while doing it). But emotional labor is often a requirement of being in a subordinate position in the workplace, regardless of what kind of work it is. The Amazon warehouse worker may not have to smile all the time, but she is probably required to be nice to her manager whether or not he’s a total jerk.

NYRA: How does the mythology of “working for love” play out in the workplace?

SJ: In the book, I detail ten different examples of workers who loved their jobs, only to find out in various ways that ultimately, they would not get treated any better for it. Those workers range from a video game programmer who after working eighty-hour weeks decided to get involved in forming the first-ever games programmers union in the U.K., to an adjunct professor who went through the whole process of getting a PhD in a field she loved only to have to teach at three or four different schools a semester to pay her bills. There’s a single mother, who began organizing art-and-activism sessions for other single parents to talk about basic income as a support for the work of parenting, and unpaid interns who, sick of working for free, organized a massive intern strike in Quebec.

NYRA: In a book chapter titled “My Studio is the World,” you bring up William Morris’s notion that “creative work could be a way to combat alienation.” Would it be accurate to say there has been a shift away from “alienating” labor given the proliferation of “creative work” in recent decades?

SJ: No. The points that I wanted to make in this book are that alienation and exploitation are not, ultimately, about how you feel about your job. Alienation means that you do not control the product of your labor— that the thing that you make and do is alienated from you. So even though I wrote this book, I ultimately do not control where it is sold, how much is charged for it, how it will be advertised and promoted. I have very little control over things like what the cover looks like, even, or whether it will be sold to other countries in translation. So whether I like the process of writing it or not—and like most creative workers, I found some of it pleasurable and some of it a miserable slog—the end product of my work is still alienated from me. And my publisher or the bookseller ultimately cares very little about the content of my book, only the profit margin to be made from it.

Morris’s suggestions of creative work combating alienation weren’t just that the work would be pleasurable—he wrote that “worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.” He also wrote about how the “hope of product” is the necessary bit to understanding the question of alienation. Are we producing things that we will keep, use, pass on to others, or are we simply producing things in order for someone else to accumulate wealth? Doing creative work is not necessarily any less alienated than manufacturing widgets in a factory.

NYRA: In the same chapter, you cite a 2018 U.K. study which notes that “in addition to the very real barriers of money, artists also face a series of gatekeepers who remain attached to the idea of art as a meritocracy—gatekeepers who tend to come from more comfortable backgrounds themselves, making it easier for them to wave away the difficulties that artists of color with less (or no) family support face just getting to enter that meritocratic context.” In the context of art, which that chapter focuses on, how much of a role does class play in producing “successful” artists and elevating them into gatekeeper positions? Should class be more present in discussions of the work of artists—and perhaps even architects?

SJ: Class should be more present in every discussion we ever have about work. But I want to be careful here, because in this sentence I’m presenting the two ways we talk about class. There’s the broad question of class which Grace Blakeley often describes in the simple phrase “those who live off work vs. those who live off wealth.” In this very broad sense artists and architects, too, should be aware of their own position as workers.

And then there’s the question of which class you were born and raised in. If you don’t come from money, it is harder to get into a position to make a lot of money, whether as an artist, an architect, a doctor, or an entrepreneur. Some of that is because it costs money to make money—to go to school, to support yourself through the period of making very little money that comes with lots of these professions—and some of it is because of the question of gatekeeping. With the fine arts, gatekeeping is more obvious: someone gets to say whether or not something is art in the first place, whether it should be shown in a gallery or a museum. But it persists in all kinds of work and even in the job interview where you’re subtly sneered at for wearing the wrong outfit or having the wrong accent. This kind of gatekeeping serves to keep white-collar professions to those who were already raised with some level of wealth.

NYRA: This year, architecture has experienced an uptick in labor-related activity, from a unionization drive at SHoP Architects, to a backlash about a Southern California Institute of Architecture talk on “how to be in an office.” From your experience covering labor, do you think such an uptick can have an effect in a creative field like architecture?

SJ: So I’m not an architect and can’t speak really for the effects these things will have in the field but it seems to me to be broadly connected with a few trends: one that predates the pandemic and one that has really been exacerbated by it.

The trend that predates the pandemic is among white-collar workers and particularly creative workers realizing that they are still, at the end of the day, workers. That job in an art museum, at a prestigious magazine, at a tech company might be the envy of your friends, but at the end of the day you’re still exhausted and underpaid. “We can’t eat prestige,” as the New Yorker magazine union signs proclaimed. So the unionization drive and the backlash can be seen in this light, as workers in another creative industry full of dream jobs realize that they are still laborers working on a product that they don’t control.

And then the pandemic made a lot of workers realize their boss doesn’t care if they die. Combine that with a couple of years of off and on lockdowns, isolation, illness or the fear of it, and people have been reevaluating their relationship with work all over the place, in a variety of industries. That’s generated a lot of anger at bosses who expect workers to be quiet and grateful for the opportunities.

I think this moment is exciting even as it’s terrifying. The outcomes of these struggles aren’t determined: what will determine them is how hard we fight. Architecture workers have a lot to learn from arts sector workers and journalists but also Amazon warehouse workers and home healthcare workers. Ultimately, these fights will be won by workers sticking by one another, not selling each other out for a short-term promotion or bonus. Whether that’s a union drive is not something I feel qualified to speak to, but at the end of the day, those of us who live off work rather than wealth—even if that’s highly skilled in-demand and relatively well-paid work—are going to have to decide which side we’re on.