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Debunking the Myths of Modern Work

Politicians often preach that hard work will protect you from poverty and deliver personal fulfilment. But under capitalism, neither of those things are true – labour will only be meaningful if we organise.

Credit: Portra / Getty

Earlier this year, Sarah Jaffe published her book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. A seasoned labour journalist, Jaffe studied how neoliberal definitions of work deliberately replicate the ineffability of love to conceal the harms of capitalism: much like we seldom consider the concept of love as historicised, Jaffe argues, the rhetoric of work-as-love takes work out of the material conditions of History.

In Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, out now from Pluto Press, Amelia Horgan—writer, activist, and researcher—covers similar ground. Horgan is concerned with the myths of work, namely in relation to the ‘comforting’ narrative of work-as-progress. Faced with a ‘race to the bottom’ in the form of the standardisation of ‘fire and rehire’ policies, poverty pay, the disaggregation of public services, and spiralling unemployment and homelessness, the idea that work is ‘the best way out of poverty’ is demonstrably false.

Despite that, both of these myths—of work-as-love and of work-as-progress—permeate our world. Reiterating the former, recognisable slogans like ‘do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’ exploit fashionable concepts of wellness to internalise the boss’s demands: as Jaffe writes, rather than seeing the employer’s ‘call for authenticity’ for what it is—an HR strategy—workers are persuaded to believe that they should love their job. If they don’t love this one, they should love themselves a little harder (read: strive more) until they find one they do.

Meanwhile, the idea of work-as-progress allows external political problems to go easily ignored. Many older people live in poverty (the UK has the worst poverty rate for elders in Western Europe), and many people in the workforce—including those in the platform economy—are middle-aged or older. But there remains a significant subsection of older people who have been shielded from the reality of the changing nature of work – who may think, as Horgan writes, that anyone can get a job through ‘a sweep of the high street with printer-warm CVs.’

These individuals inhabit ‘a fantasy world,’ with little understanding of just how ‘quickly and totally the rug has been pulled from under people’s feet.’ In turn, this fantasy reinforces the notion of an aspiration deficit, touted by establishment figures who claim that people have bad jobs because they lack the ‘confidence’ to strive for better ones. Such claims are accompanied by only a partial and unsustainable solution: in Horgan’s words, ‘addressing the problem of work must involve raising the floor rather than making it easier for a tiny number to puncture the ceiling.’

In a world of growing precarity and unemployment, the myths of work turn infrastructural problems into individual pathologies. Horgan notes how unemployment gets described as a ‘hereditary sickness’ that needs to be ‘cured’ through ‘hard work’ – a behaviourist explanation that disables worker solidarity by breeding resentment and disunity, particularly when, in actuality, the difference between employment and unemployment is often only a matter of degrees.

Barring a privileged minority who own the roofs over their heads, or have savings to fall back on, Horgan writes, the reality is that for over a third of UK households, a job loss means the rent for the coming month cannot be paid. With this in mind, she argues that unions must include unemployed workers, and cites historical examples like Unite’s Community Initiative, the National Unemployed Workers Movement of the 1920s, and the Claimants Unions of the ’60s and ’70s as steps in the right direction.

But history also brought us to our modern mythology. Present in both books is an assessment of the ‘new work’ of the 1980s, which promised ‘flexibility’ and ‘variety’. For all its surface changes—namely the standardisation of open-plan offices and the conceptualisation of ‘teamwork’—there was little newness in new work: old hierarchies survived, now hidden behind a performative claim to meritocracy.

The faux-friendliness of new work predominates today, the promise of ‘togetherness’ veiling the true hypercompetition of neoliberalism. Capitalist employers are in fact very skilled at finding new ways to pretend work is ‘new’. Work apps, for instance, mimic the informality of social media to blur the distinction between work and leisure, but in all cases, the premise stays the same: by pretending that the workplace is a site of something other than class struggle—whether that be love, or fun, or personal progress—those with power intentionally undermine class consciousness and discourage labour organising.

Work myth-making, of course, reached a particular zenith during the pandemic. Horgan evidences this with the reiteration of ‘nonsense binaries’ like ‘strivers versus strikers’ and the Tories’ ‘ugly suggestion’ that workers were ‘addicted to furlough’ and had to be ‘weaned off’. Get-back-to-work propaganda was plastered over the London Underground: Dettol’s TfL adverts painted a romantic image of the office based around such mystical mundanities as ‘hearing an alarm’, ‘putting on a tie’, and ‘watercooler conversations’.

The irony was that the obsessive focus on London office work marginalised the biggest victims of the pandemic – namely frontline workers (often from racialised backgrounds) and young workers in the service sector. Sixty percent of those who lost their jobs between June and August 2020 were service workers aged 18-24, Horgan points out.

Other myths were more insidious. Horgan writes that the divide between essential and non-essential workers was, by design, largely synthetic: a government loophole allowed employers to decide for themselves whether their employees were or were not ‘essential’. This arbitrary decision-making process forced workers into harm’s way: many call centres, for example—typically based out of poorly ventilated buildings—stayed open throughout successive lockdowns.

In reality, just over half of the UK population kept going into work – although it may not have seemed like it to those living in more affluent areas. Jaffe also shows how the myth of work-as-love was used to bully people back into work when they felt unsafe – particularly for those who work in jobs with a caring component, like teachers. The notion of ‘labours of love’, rather than labour to live, is used to deny us the rights and protections we need.

Against so much bad work and exploitation, Horgan ponders the feasibility of in-work resistance. Since one of the best ruses of neoliberalism is to exploit our emotions, arguably one way to rebel is to change how we feel about work – remembering, as Horgan puts it, that ‘we almost always need a job more than a job needs us.’ But how viable is mental or emotional resistance when studies have shown that workers who perform the same repetitive movements throughout the day perform those same movements in their sleep? The same goes for relatively sedentary but unhappy, stressful work.

Mental resistance is also difficult when employers vampirise even the smallest, most innocuous acts of personalisation. Horgan refers to TfL workers who started writing quotes on the information board in a London Underground station, only for this initiative to be promptly co-opted by upper management. Now, workers throughout the network get emailed a quote each morning, which they then have to take a photo of in order to post onto an internal app to prove that it has indeed been written.

Perhaps most sinister in entrenching work myths throughout the general populace is the creeping influence of a rating culture. Apps and smiley terminals, for instance, incite customers to do a manager’s job for free. HappyOrNot machines, invented by a Finnish start-up, have a toy-like, user-friendly quality, featuring four smiley-face buttons ranging from dark green to deep red—very happy, happy, unhappy, and very unhappy—and gamify customer feedback.

When the datasets created through these terminals get used, as they do, to accelerate competition or substantiate dismissal, it’s no exaggeration to say that they induce customers to play with other people’s livelihoods. This means the saving grace of not having to smile through the worst parts of many low-paid jobs has all but disappeared: when anyone can walk off the street, write a negative review, or reduce your job to a red-faced emoji, ‘The Boss’ is everywhere and everyone.

Of course, emotional labour in the ever-expanding service sector is linked to jobs that were once gendered female. Jaffe explains this in her chapter on retail work in the US, ‘Service with a Smile’: ‘to manage your feelings in order to avoid imposing them on others,’ she writes, ‘is to place yourself in a subordinate position.’ In this sense, many jobs, in retail and beyond, condition workers to be skilled in ‘a life without power.’

These expectations, however, can also be sites of struggle. The ‘smile strikes’ threatened at various times by predominantly female cabin crews call to mind Shulamith Firestone’s case for a ‘smile boycott’ in her 1970 feminist manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex. By resisting the emotional labour baked into so many jobs, ‘smile strikes’ encourage both customers and workers to question exactly how much of ourselves is up for sale.

But Horgan rightly asks what these spontaneous forms of resistance accomplish. How valuable are minor acts of corporate sabotage? She argues that despite their cathartic value, small acts of resistance—where successful—can detract from the urgency of labour organising. Citing recent examples of mass action by bin workers in Bexley and care workers in Birmingham and Haringey, Horgan shows how much more is possible through the renewal of class consciousness and organising at ‘deeper and deeper scales.’

Covid-19 is popularising arguments like these, sometimes previously confined to academic circles and labour organising movements. At the very least, the pandemic has revealed the prevalence of bad work—in pay, in conditions, in overreaching expectations—to those who might have otherwise ignored the problem.

People everywhere are challenging the narratives that characterise work as a route out of poverty, or to self-actualisation, because for most, neither holds true: in modern Britain, hard work simply does not guarantee a life of dignity, or safety, or fulfilment. A widely circulated meme captures a shift in attitudes, particularly among the young: ‘Darling I don’t have a dream job, I don’t dream of labour.’ In the current context, this can be read as an indictment of the myths of work as much as work itself: we might dream more of labour, for example, had that dreaming not been made into an act of labour itself – or were the current conditions of labour not so bleak. But how long will this shift last – and how far will it go?

Any solution to existing problems must be on a much larger, more radical scale than anything previously imagined. While Work Won’t Love You Back and Lost in Work provide accessible histories of capitalism and deconstruct the mythos of modern work, they ultimately remain focused on the future: Jaffe and Horgan never lose sight of who and what they’re fighting for – and despite plenty of righteous anger, both books are, ultimately, beacons of hope. As Horgan puts it, ‘We can’t get our lives back without radically changing the very foundation of society.’