Labouring unloved

In the West we’ve yet to make the acknowledgment that overwork can be deadly, says Katrina Gulliver

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There is an amusing Twitter account called @forexposure_txt which details requests that artists and designers receive from prospective “clients” expecting them to work for free — and indeed, to be grateful for the “exposure” this opportunity will give them. The demands of a stranger’s time for nothing are jaw-dropping in their audacity (as are some of the outraged responses to being told there is a price).

Obviously these are mostly random chancers, but this sort of “good for your resumé” free labour is formalised in some fields, in the form of the unpaid internship. A student or recent graduate will spend weeks or months doing basic work, in the hope that this will be their foot-in-the-door for future employment. This is an expected rite of passage in the arts and heritage sectors, and serves as a screening process to keep out anyone who might actually need to earn a living.

Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe, Hurst £20

After all, if you can afford to live in London or New York for a few months for free, you’ll probably take whatever pitiful salary a museum or auction house or publisher offers. (To nobody’s surprise, these industries are populated by people who have trust funds.) Employers needing services they are reluctant to pay for is one theme of labour journalist Sarah Jaffe’s book, Work Won’t Love You Back. She follows the struggles of several people, mostly women in pink-collar employment, and the ways in which they are variously poked in the eye by the Invisible Hand of the market. Those of us familiar with this brand of hypocrisy can manage a wry smile at accounts of how lefty start-up and non- profit leaders talk a good game about workers’ rights until it’s their employees who want to unionise and get decent wages and health insurance.

And then they wheel out the argument that surely the workers should be doing this as a labour of love. It’s particularly effective at charities: Don’t you care about the cause? (Because if you do, you’ll work overtime for free, after all: they really need you).

The idea that work won’t love you back isn’t new, but it is only fairly recently in human history that anyone expected that it might

The idea that work won’t love you back isn’t new, but it is only fairly recently in human history that anyone expected that it might. Through most of our ancestors’ lives, work was a means to an end. It was not something that an individual expected to find validating or inspiring. As Jaffe puts it, “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.”

That is not to say that a skilled craftsman might not have taken pride in the product of his labour. But the idea that work itself was a form of personal fulfilment began to emerge with the existence of white-collar jobs in the industrialised economy. Through this class of employment came a path to greater economic stability and social position for many people: when a distinction emerged between work and career. Work, by anthropologist James Suzman, is a narrative of the emergence of this industrial society. Once we simply existed, and did what we needed to survive: now we work. Labour is a definable category of activity, with a price attached.

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time by James Suzman, Bloomsbury Circus £25

The attachment of a price is what creates some confusion over leisure and labour. In the modern economy, those with spare cash or time will do for free (or indeed, pay to do) things others do for a living. As Suzman points out: “To an ancient forager hunting an elk is work, but to many First World hunters it is an exhilarating and often very expensive leisure activity; to a commercial artist drawing is work, but to millions of amateur artists it is a relaxing pleasure.”

Like the artists on @forexposure.txt, there’s an undercurrent that you should be grateful to be paid anything at all, if your “job” is doing what other people do for fun. This awkward situation produces roles (like the arts and academia) which carry some level of social prestige without being particularly remunerative. (Anything that people talk about as a “calling” or “following your passion” means you won’t be driving a Porsche.)

In the West we’ve yet to make the acknowledgment that overwork can be deadly; our culture seems to have a grudging admiration for the “workaholic”

In academia, we share with horror the ads for fellowships paying trifling nominal “stipends”, far less than anyone could live on. But the bitter truth is that (like the unpaid internship at the Guggenheim) there are hundreds of people who would take a job at Harvard or Oxford if it paid nothing. Indeed, those universities could charge, and have applicants willing to pay for an office on an ancient quad and a prestigious email address.

Suzman traces the history of work to the patterns of the earliest forager societies. These nomads did not plan ahead, or store food for the future; instead, they just took what they needed. Settled agriculture was the beginning of planning ahead and delayed gratification (planting seeds and waiting to harvest them months later). In the post-industrial economy, gratification is so postponed that for some people there is nothing but work. Suzman details how Japan has understood death by overwork:

Karoshi describes such a death as a result of cardiac illness attributable to exhaustion, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and lack of exercise … Karo jisatsu describes when an employee takes their own life as a result of the mental stresses arising from overworking. At the end of the year, the Ministry of Labour certified that 190 deaths occurred over the course of 2013 as a result of either karoshi or karo jisatsu, with the former outnumbering the latter two to one.

In the West we’ve yet to make the acknowledgment that overwork can be deadly; our culture seems to have a grudging admiration for the “workaholic”, those who boast of only sleeping five hours a day or cranking out prodigious amounts of work. We have recently begun to acknowledge the downside of this work-focused model with the idea of “deaths of despair” — typically the opposite of overwork, but despair from lack of employment opportunities.

This despair is born from a culture that places a high value on jobs, particularly for men. Those who don’t work are seen as lazy or unworthy. Nor is it only a capitalist tendency to see some sector of society as indolent or undeserving. As Suzman puts it: “Market capitalists and socialists are both equally irritated by ‘freeloaders’ — they just zero their animosity towards different kinds of freeloaders. Thus socialists demonise the idle rich, while capitalists tend to save their scorn for the ‘idle poor’.”

That people can work hard and still have little to show for it is the downside of a society that invests an individual’s value in their occupation. Jaffe’s subjects are sometimes scraping by in these hourly-paid, on-call roles in retail or service, jobs with no protections or path for advancement: in a world that tells them it’s their fault. And this is the end point of a social system that values individuals by their role: the classic cocktail party icebreaker of “What do you do?” — which we all know means, “Are you worth talking to?”

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