BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In this month's jobs report, one morsel of data did stick out. The country's active workforce is back to within one percent of what it was in February 2020 pre-pandemic. But if that's true, what happened to this:.
NEWS CLIP It's being called the great resignation. A record number of Americans are telling their bosses I quit.
NEWS CLIP Wages increased again last month as companies tried to attract new employees,.
NEWS CLIP And restaurant owners are taking a double hit. A shortage of workers and skyrocketing costs.
NEWS CLIP The health care sector has lost more than half a million jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Factories don't have enough workers. Even farms are dealing with labor shortages. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Weren't we all taking our cardboard boxes and marching out en masse? When the term "the great resignation" was coined, the explanations varied. Burnout, retirement, stimulus checks, childcare, health and safety, even – get this – happiness. But nowadays, are Americans really still packing it in? Some say yes.
NEWS CLIP Just head back to work as thousands return to work. Employers are still challenged by the great resignation.
NEWS CLIP Look, the great resignation is still here. We predict it'll still be here through the summer. Millions of people quit their jobs in December. You know who quits in December? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Others say, Well, just some of us,..
NEWS CLIP You're still seeing it, particularly in that millennial kind of generation. There still is a lot of movement because there's a lot of opportunity. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Still, others say the great resignation has shifted into the great remorse.
NEWS CLIP A new survey shows many people who changed jobs are now having quitters remorse. Millions of Americans decided during the pandemic that their current job was not good enough, but a survey by The News found that 75% of the 2500 job seekers polled, admitted their new jobs were not what they thought they would be. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some even predict employers might flip the script entirely.
INTERVIEWER Do you think we're going to see more companies slashing their valuations and potentially going through these mass layoffs?
GUEST Yeah Emily, so I truly think that we're about to see a 180 reverse of the great resignation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Truly, the moral arc of work is long, but shouldn't it bend toward fairness and equity? Some months back, we spoke with the journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of the book Work Won't Love You Back. And she argued that the deal proffered by Henry Ford: security and a certain amount of ease in exchange for boring or dangerous work, was withdrawn half a century ago and replaced by the notion that you should love your job as a source of fulfillment. That says Jaffe was never in the worker's best interest. All this was finally stripped bare by the pandemic, which is why we have what some have mischaracterized as the great resignation.
SARAH JAFFE So for most of capitalism, the industrial work that made up the backbone of the system was miserable. It's hard, it's grinding, it's exhausting and breaks your body. So there is essentially a deal struck between bosses and employees. The work probably sucks, but we're going to pay you all right and you're going to have a weekend and you're going to probably be able to buy a house. And this idea that you will find pleasure in your work was relegated to the sidelines. It was there for sort of critics of the system, like English artisan William Morris, who was both a maker of beautiful prints and also a radical socialist who was writing critiques of the system. He argued that people should get pleasure in the work itself, as well as the fruits of their labor. That that would actually be a more equal and a more just and less miserable society. We don't get that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We get a place to live, the ability to support a family, an occasional vacation, a weekend. Those basics were something that workers were willing to pay for with eight hour, five day work weeks.
SARAH JAFFE Right, and that was not that historically long a period of time that that ruled. But it is this thing that still has a really solid hold over our imaginations because it gave us some expectation that we would be fairly remunerated for our work. The 1970s brings us a crisis of profits, essentially where workers are getting an increasing piece of the pie and suddenly the pie stops growing. And this has all sorts of reasons, everything from an oil crisis to political changes. But employers start outsourcing the factory jobs. We no longer want to pay people an ever growing slice of the pie. Something replaces those jobs. Teachers, care workers, retail workers, restaurant workers and that work already existed and already had a different set of expectations for emotional labor and things like that, and also the cool knowledge jobs where you get to sit around talking on the radio about the book that you wrote, which are a minuscule part of the economy, really, those jobs too are expanding and those to come with a different expectation that you will like it. You should be grateful for it. And so one of the reasons that I think it's a. Interesting to talk about this history is just to remind people that it's not always been this way, and it's still not this way for every worker. I went to Indiana to get a report on the carrier factory closing after Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had made a big deal out of it on the campaign trail in 2016. And I was talking to workers and I was like, What are you going to miss about the job? And they all looked at me like I had three heads. You know, the paycheck? Maybe they were going to miss their buddies in the union and going to the bar after work for a round of beers before they go home. But like, nobody was like, Oh, I'm really going to miss standing at the machine for 12 hours a day. No, I'm going to miss 26 dollars an hour plus overtime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They had been roped in by the Fordist compromise, which receded in the 70s and then we got neoliberalism or post-Fordism, or, as you say, late capitalism. A world of fewer social services, fewer worker protections, jobs going offshore and workers begging for them to stay. You quote Joshua Clover in his book, saying labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival. And you say that was a short step to the labor of love. Explain that.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah. So one of the things that's been fascinating about the strikes this year is that we've seen a lot of strikes in manufacturing, which is a place we haven't seen that many of them in recent years because workers have been too busy trying to keep those plants open. Again, I revisit the carrier plant, the Lordstown GM plant in Ohio, where factories are closing down and the workers are desperately trying to save them. The striking thing about the carrier plant actually was sort of on either side of it. There is an Amazon warehouse and a Target warehouse. You look around and you know what the jobs that you're going to get are when the factory closes. You're going to be making $15 an hour if you're lucky, which doesn't pay the mortgage on the house you bought $26 dollars an hour. And so you go from being able to strike, shut down production, make demands for more, like the workers at John Deere did this summer – to begging your employer not to shut the factory down entirely and move it to Mexico, to Bangladesh, to Vietnam, to China. So that creates a very different relationship to the job and to the employer, and that connects really easily to this idea that was already proliferating in other forms of work: that we love our jobs, that we're grateful for our jobs, that our jobs give us meaning and fulfillment and pride.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this idea of love roll back again to the 70s. You quoted Margaret Thatcher saying: "Whose society? There's no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families." And the implication is work is an extension of family, so you should love it and be prepared to sacrifice for it.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah. One of the things that was fascinating when I was reporting my book was I expected to hear a lot of family talk in caring workplaces, in hospitals and health care and teaching, maybe in arts institutions. I didn't expect to hear it so much where I did, which was actually the video games industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE HA!
SARAH JAFFE Games workers were always hearing it, literally one company that I reported on in the book refers to itself on its website as a family, right? And I know about this company because it fired one of its workers for organizing. But you know, I was speaking to the games workers and Kevin Agwaze, who is the person that I based my video games workers chapter on. He was joking about "You know, you move halfway across the country to take a new job at the games company. And then there are these mass layoffs every year. And so they've laid you off six months after they've told you that you've joined the family" and it's like your family doesn't have mass layoffs once a year, you know. Where you evaluate, like Aunt Susan and decide, like, nope, she's out now. No more part of the family. Firing your family is very, very difficult. Firing your workers is very, very easy. One of the things that happens when you have this incredible pressure for everything to sort of be on your individual back is that it becomes all about your individual achievement, your individual relationships with your job, your individual sort of utility, maximizing your ability to keep an eye out for the next good job and jump as soon as it comes along. That kind of pressure, among other things, it really militate against having these conversations with your coworkers, realizing that actually, we're all in the same boat here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it disrupts collective action
SARAH JAFFE Right, exactly. It tells you that the solution, if you don't love your job, is to go find a job you do love rather than to try to make your job better. And that is, I think, the most sort of useful thing that the labor of love story does for employers writ large. It tells us that it's all on us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And with the decline of the factory job of the industrial job with a decent wage. You've got this reliance on love and the jobs that are now proliferating are care jobs, health jobs and so on. And they in particular can engender burnout.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah, the thing about burnout, which has become a sort of buzzword these days, is that the term and the condition originally come out of research on caring workers. On doctors and nurses. That doctors and nurses who were burned out were losing that motivation of caring about their work that they just couldn't bring themselves to care anymore. But what is burnout to the factory worker who maybe never really cared that much about the drill that you lift, however many times an hour to do your part on the assembly line? It's very hard to feel like intrinsically motivated about that, even though you might feel pride in the car that you helped build. And in the money that you bring home, burnout essentially becomes a problem of the labor of love.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I remember talking to a therapist who talked about something that was in the 60s called stewardess syndrome, where you had to smile, even when sleazy business people were touching you or pulling at your skirt. And you had to really convey a love for your job and a kind of happy subservience. And that and the emotional toll it took, was devastating.
SARAH JAFFE Right, and this is very interesting, because actually the research that sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild did that led her to come up with the concept of emotional labor was on flight attendants and it was on that very particular thing that you're talking about. That work of suppressing how you really feel when, like the creepy guy in first class puts his hand on your butt to keep smiling and be like, Can I get you a scotch, sir? Even though I want to murder you? That's work. I was rereading this wonderful article from again early on in the pandemic at Tribune Magazine by Polly Smyth, and she was a retail worker. And the piece was called How COVID turned cashiers into carers. And she told this haunting story of handing a customer his change through the little hole in the plexiglass that was supposed to prevent them from breathing on each other. And this customer reached out and took her hand and just held on to it. And she writes, after about 10 seconds, he let go, looked down at the floor and said, I'm very sorry. The thing is, I live alone. Every customer at the checkout counter, you have to smile at and all of that. But then how much harder is that when you're realizing that this customer hasn't touched a human? And that story just, it haunts me because it's such a perfect example of of how much harder these jobs got in maybe ways that we didn't even think about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does work ever love you back?
SARAH JAFFE I mean, work is just not a thing that can love you. And even if you have a great boss and look, I've had great bosses; that doesn't take away from the pressures that every employer will face and the fact that at the end of the day, they sometimes have to make a choice that isn't the best for me because it's the best for the business. And that is just a fundamental thing that isn't solvable, necessarily, by your boss being nicer. It's solvable by changing these relationships
BROOKE GLADSTONE Between the worker and the work.
SARAH JAFFE Right. And that's a big, broad social relationship that gets changed at the top by economic systems and public policy. There is a limited amount of life hacks that can solve this problem, and the shifting from one job to the next can absolutely change your life for the better, but it's also still going to be a job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH JAFFE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow and author of Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. Up next in this hour about work, the architecture of the office and what it tells us about the past and future of our working lives. This is On the Media.