The first time I met Earl Apache Longwolf, he was wearing a United Steelworkers baseball cap with a button that said, “I ♥ my fucking job.” Earl was a proud welder and burner in his mid-50s. Before we had settled into our interview, he showed me a picture of himself in a welder’s suit. He had worked in factories, shipyards, and in cutting away the wreckage of the Twin Towers following 9-11. His leather vest was covered with 9-11 patches; he was especially proud of that job. The rough conditions of his occupation were part of the appeal: “It’s exciting. I love a good challenge. You’re out there in the rain, the sleet, the cold. I love it.” He repeated the steelworker’s saying, ‘Steel is what’s for dinner, not beef.’ When I asked what that meant, he said, “That means you love what you do.” A few years later, when we met again, I asked if he was thinking of retiring. He replied, “I’m going to stay until the thrill is gone, Claudia, because I love what I do. When you love what you do, it’s really hard to picture me retired, watching TV. I’d go nuts.”
Earl was one of more than 60 unemployed Americans I interviewed to understand how they thought about work and coped with long-term unemployment during the sluggish economy following the 2008 financial crisis. I found most of my participants at places where unemployed people gathered, at job fairs, career counseling sessions, networking meetings, and at small accountability and support groups. Their occupations and previous incomes varied, from a recently released drug dealer to a director of finance for a Fortune 500 company. Their race and ethnicity varied too. My participants were African American, European American, Asian American, and Latinx Earl is part Navajo and part African American.
Despite their diversity, one thing that the majority shared is that under the right conditions they had (mostly) enjoyed working. The pleasures they derived from their jobs varied. When I asked Celeste Rue, an administrative assistant, what was the meaning of work for her, she replied, “The first thing that comes to my head is having fun – having fun and doing a good job. I could get lost in a spreadsheet – in a complex spreadsheet. I could get lost creating a PowerPoint. I could get lost formatting a document.” She laughed as she said this because she knew it sounded strange, but the work was enjoyable for her. Rebecca Robinson, another administrative assistant, delighted in setting up systems to keep offices organized and functioning smoothly; she said it was her calling. Robert Milner, a supply chain strategist for a cosmetics company, said, “One day, you’re thinking about formulas, and you’re dealing with laboratories and engineers and biochemists. And the next day, you’re dealing with the marketing department and the creative department to try to come up with a design. Real fun. I like that.” Tony DeLuca found it gratifying to solve people’s problems as a V.P. in Human Resources. For many what was enjoyable was a routine, a structure, and the opportunity to get out of their house and socialize with other people. Sam Lennon, who was disabled and could no longer work in the kinds of cashier jobs she had held, said she would work if she could: “I’m really tired of the cats. It’s fun to work.”
The people I talked to are not out of the norm. When asked, “Aside from the money it pays you, does your job provide you with great personal satisfaction, moderate personal satisfaction, very little personal satisfaction, or no personal satisfaction at all?” only 12% of working Americans found little to no personal satisfaction from their jobs.
That does not mean the people I interviewed always enjoyed their jobs. Earl Apache Longwolf did not appreciate employers who “want to work you to death but they treat you like dog doodoo.” La Dama de abril felt fulfilled as a cosmetologist, but it was difficult to get licensed as an undocumented immigrant. The main way she earned a living was as a housecleaner, which she thoroughly disliked. Summer Carrington had loved her responsible job with a bank, but the inhumane conditions in an Amazon warehouse made her miserable. Even a job that someone loves is likely to have problems – and this is what makes Earl’s job a ‘fucking’ job.
We don’t expect ‘love’ and ‘fun’ to be in the same sentence as ‘work.’ Neither Marx’s theories of workers’ alienation under capitalism nor Weber’s analysis of a joyless Puritan work ethic predicted that. Work is surely soul crushing for many people at least some of the time. However, it can also be fulfilling and enjoyable. Our theories and politics of work need to recognize that.
I particularly worry about the rhetoric of postwork theorists, although I share their main policy goals. Their goals include a world in which waged work occupies less time. Reduced working hours would be embraced by my participants. Earl loved his work, but he did not want to be worked to death. Even those of my participants who were fulfilled by their jobs wanted time for family, friends, hobbies, relaxation, and spiritual pursuits. They appreciated the alternation between working and not working; pleasure in work was not their only source of pleasure.
The problem comes when postwork theorists assert that people work only because they have to and would be happy to give it up. In their 1994 book, The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work, Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio claim, “When they are given the opportunity, workers—skilled and unskilled alike—are pleased to be relieved of participation in the labor process provided they are guaranteed an income adequate to the current ‘decent’ standard of living.” That is not what I found talking to unemployed workers. They missed not only the income they had earned but also the routines and pleasures of working.
Postwork theorist Kathi Weeks has a subtler analysis. In her important 2011 book, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, she acknowledges that a possible explanation for devoting so much time to work is that “we work because we want to: work provides a variety of satisfactions—in addition to income, it can be a source of meaning, purpose, structure, social ties, and recognition.” However, she goes on to argue that wanting to work hard is not inherent to humans; instead, it was inculcated by an ascetic Protestant work ethic and its secular descendants. Thus, while people may consent to invest themselves in work, this is a manufactured consent, a form of false consciousness that “renders subjects supremely functional for capitalist purposes.” Try telling that to Earl!
But suppose, for a moment, we were to grant that in the utopian society of the future, people would find greater satisfaction from other pursuits. There remains the problem that in the politics of the present, the inaccurate claim that most people would prefer not to work feeds the narrative of the Right – that the recipients of social assistance have to be bludgeoned into working because they would rather sit at home on the dole. The Right wants to force citizens to work more and cut government assistance. Meanwhile, the postwork Left wants to enable citizens to work less and increase government assistance. Ironically, each starts from the same assumption that work is fundamentally unpleasant and people would avoid it if they could.
Suppose instead that our politics of work began with the premise that work is necessary, but it can also be enjoyable. Our goal is to increase the joy. This means some traditional trade union goals: workers have to be treated well, not like ‘dog doodoo’ as Earl put it. But it also means incorporating postwork goals: working hours have to be reasonable, leaving time for other pursuits. The nature of the work is important: jobs need to be meaningful and stimulating, not pointless and boring. The reaction to David Graeber’s 2013 STRIKE! Magazine article and his recent book on Bullshit Jobs shows that he is onto something, although I share concerns about his squishy numbers. Between earned income and government social assistance, everyone should be guaranteed access to the necessities of life and more. In that kind of society it would be easy to reject a conservative politics of forced labor. We would see it as progress and not false consciousness if most people could truly say, “I love my fucking job.”
All participant names used in this article are pseudonyms.
Claudia Strauss is Professor of Anthropology at Pitzer College, USA