What's the Point of Non-Essential Work?

Image: Benjamin Currie

A few weeks ago, stuck in the waiting room at the emergency vet (the cat is fine!), I watched the 2001 movie Monsters, Inc. from beginning to end. The movie is very technically about two monsters who work at a factory where they scare small children in the night in order to power the monster-only city they live in. In theory, Monsters, Inc. is a buddy comedy, but it struck me instead as a movie about the drudgery of work. The monsters pour themselves mugs of sludgy coffee, worry about meeting their “scare” quotas, and stress about appeasing the company’s board members. Even in the fictional universe of Monsters, Inc., I thought, work fucking sucks.

This sentiment is innocuous enough to be the subplot of a children’s movie. But to embed it in a broader political view—to suggest that people should be able to meet their basic needs without doing jobs they find soul-deadening—is usually to offend if not completely befuddle. Work is supposed to be an incontrovertible good. That very idea is so deeply ingrained in the way American society is arranged that it can be difficult for workers, both human and monster, to challenge, even as they exhaust themselves doing largely trivial tasks.

I’ve certainly bought into many of society’s prescriptions about work, viewing it as both an economic necessity as well as a way to satisfy an existential need to feel useful and whole. Like many workers in my age and class cohorts, I’ve always identified closely with my work, viewing “writer” as much more than just my profession and something more akin to an identity. Failures at writing felt like failures in life. My close relationship to work was especially regrettable since my work was precarious: I was laid off from my first job in media in the summer of 2017, and then again, from my most recent job two months after the pandemic began shuttering businesses, while the economy took hit after hit without much help from the government. I was just one of roughly 21 million Americans who lost their jobs. I felt worn out and disillusioned, not just with my particular line of work, but with the idea of work itself.

I was frustrated that I had tied so much of my self-worth to my job, especially when I could lose it at any moment. Why didn’t I have something else that gave me the same feelings of satisfaction and purpose? Why did work seem to be the centerpiece of my life, rather than just one other thing in it? Why did I have to work?

I am not the only one wrestling with these questions. Like me, many are reassessing a part of their lives they had once accepted uncritically. Those who were not essential workers realized their work was just that: nonessential. Others discovered that, at the very least, they didn’t have to put in 10-hour days to get their work done, or even to be considered “good” at their jobs. This wasn’t a matter of addressing burnout or general malaise: The pandemic had dramatically altered their very conception of work and made them question the notion that their lives should be built around it.

“Ninety percent of my identity was my job,” Kate Flowers, a 32-year-old based in Oregon, told me. “But I had a moment of clarity pretty early on in covid of ‘none of this matters.’”

Until mid-March, Flowers worked full time for a branding and live events agency, traveling 190 days out of every year. When she was working out of the office, she worked a standard 9-to-5 schedule; but when she was on the road she would work 14-hour days, including at least one day of the weekend. She told me that having off both days of the weekend was so rare, she still thinks of it as a special “two-day” weekend when it happens. “Talking to my friends would be like the work Olympics: We’d be like, ‘I’m more stressed out, ‘ ‘I’m busier,’ ‘Well, I got shingles from work,’” Flowers said, recalling her pre-pandemic conversations. “And it’s like, do you hear yourself?”

Constant busyness was more or less in the job description for 33-year-old Danielle Bayard Jackson. Jackson runs her own public relations firm in Tampa, Florida, and growing her business required showing prospective clients how hard she would work for them. She would respond to clients whenever they needed her, sneaking in calls while her two-year-old son was playing on the playground, or just before bed. Bayard often posted time-stamped photos and videos of her workday to her Instagram stories, showing herself waking up at 5 a.m. and working well into the night.

“I’m very transparent about this—I’ve been a sucker in buying into the whole ‘hustle culture’ thing,” Jackson said. “I had this image in my head I was trying to live up to of what success looks like, and it was a woman pounding the pavement in high heels, always grinding, always on the phone.”

Hustle culture reinforces myths of meritocracy by encouraging people to work longer and harder, believing that our hard work will eventually be rewarded. It’s an ethos designed by companies, and from which companies primarily benefit. Adopting this attitude toward work doesn’t benefit us so much as it benefits employers, who reap the lion’s share of profits workers generate for them. But it often operates insidiously: Hustle culture suggests that we think of work as a fun lifestyle choice rather than an obligation; it demands workers #riseandgrind every morning and pretend they love doing it. This message is amplified by brands and then propagated by influencers, entrepreneurs, and often the average 9-to-5 employee.

Under these conditions it’s easy to “become addicted to the pace and stress of work,” Erin Griffith wrote for the New York Times last year. It’s also easy to apply the logic of hustle culture to every other area of our lives, endlessly optimizing the way we eat, exercise, or spend time with friends and family to make even our leisure time as efficient as possible—all so we can get back to work.

Flowers and Jackson both described themselves as willing participants in this culture, but identifying a problem isn’t enough to solve it, and in many ways, the pandemic made it worse. Working from home has obliterated any semblance of a work-life balance, and the average American is actually doing more work than before. But the pandemic has also exposed these conditions for what they are, to the point that they have become much more difficult to ignore. At least once a week I think about a rhetorical question the feminist thinker Nancy Fraser posed in a Vice interview a little less than one month into the pandemic: “I mean, why do we have people doing work that is not essential,” Fraser said. “Why would we have non-essential work at all, why wouldn’t we just have leisure?”

For those who are working less, Fraser’s point about essential and nonessential work looms large. If work isn’t crucial to the basic functions of society, and if it doesn’t serve workers particularly well either—leaving people exhausted, stressed, and with little time to spend on more fulfilling pursuits—what’s the point of it?

“I feel like the pandemic has shown that we don’t need everyone to be working at max productivity all the time,” Erin Schwartz, a freelance writer, said. “Labor for labor’s sake is pointless.”

Freelancer Zoë Beery told me about how she had begun working on a “safer space” initiative at a Brooklyn bar to help change nightlife culture just before the pandemic hit. The work was gratifying and she felt like she could immediately see how it made a difference for people. Plus, it was a welcome break from the proverbial grind required to cobble together a salary as a writer. And when her workday was over, it was over; she didn’t put in extra hours when she was off the clock and it felt discrete from her leisure time.

Beery’s attitude toward work had been shifting for months before the pandemic, but it’s since come into sharper focus. “Philosophically I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that in this economy the healthiest labor situation is finding a job that is not actively harmful, pays you enough money to live comfortably, and that you don’t really turn to for any kind of spiritual/personal validation or fulfillment,” she said. “You pay your bills, it feels dignified enough, and it doesn’t demand anything more than that.”

Beery imagines working significantly less, as do Flowers and Jackson; Flowers, so she could put more of her time and energy into friendships and dating, and Jackson so she could spend more time with her family. Schwartz told me her ideal job would require no more than 20 hours a week of work, writing and editing pieces she cares about.

Yacine Niang, a 23-year-old who just lost her first post-college job said her ideal job is none: “I dream of being able to go back to work, pay my bills and build my own company so I can eventually leave that job,” she said. “But really my dream job is no job.”

It can be difficult if not impossible to abide completely by one’s own principles when the problems with work are not individual but structural. Work is necessary to survive, a fact is usually treated as immutable and immovable. “The social role of waged work has been so naturalized as to seem necessary and inevitable, something that might be tinkered with but never escaped,” anti-work feminist Kathi Weeks wrote in her 2011 book The Problem With Work.

Sarah Jaffe refers to this idea as “workplace realism,” in her new book Work Won’t Love You Back. Riffing on Mark Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism, Jaffee reminds the reader: We may work from home, work odd hours, have meetings over Zoom rather than in person, but on the macro level the idea that we should work no matter what has remained stubbornly intact. But, as Jaffe reminded me, the history of the labor movement in the U.S. is founded on fights for fewer hours and more time to spend as we wish. The struggle for the eight-hour workday we now consider standard (in theory if not in practice) might also have begun as a single seed of consciousness, a realization that spending the majority of our time at work is not natural.

Individual epiphanies about work—that one would rather do much less of it, or that one should at least be able to do it on one’s own terms—can become the foundation of collective movements. During the pandemic, workers have organized for better work conditions, gone on rent strike to demand that housing be recognized as a human right. The government has demonstrated that it has the ability to deposit $1,200 into the bank accounts of (most) Americans if there is the political will—fertile ground for agitating for a universal basic income. These are practical measures to materially improve people’s lives as well as important exercises in imagination: It is possible to alter the way we work.

“The crisis can make it much more obvious to us the ways work sucks but we still have to change it,” Jaffe said. “The realizations that people are coming to, the reckonings people are having with work, those are happening everywhere. What we do with them then is the next question.”

Night blogger at Jezebel with writing at The Baffler, The Nation, Vice, Gothamist, The Awl, and more.

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DISCUSSION

snide-o-mite
Snide-O-Mite

I was raised to believe that if you weren’t in school or at work, you were lazy. My parents (Depression-era, born and raised in poverty) never took sick leave even when they were sick. I was in the hospital as a kid, and they still went to work. They missed every school play, recital, spelling bee, science, fair, etc. because “do you want me at your event or do you want a roof over your head?” as if those were the only two options. I used to believe those were the only two options until I saw my mother’s coworkers at my school events. They never ended up homeless. My parents also believed that vacations were self-indulgent so they never took those either and looked down on families who did.

Today, my parents have amassed quite a nest egg with nothing and no one to spend it on. They’re too old and physically broken down (from all that work!) to travel or enjoy their savings. Even though their front porch is literally falling off the house, they refuse to replace it because they don’t want to spend money on themselves. They’d rather fall and break something than fix that porch because that’s more noble? They’re the poorest rich people I’ve ever seen.

What really drives them nuts is that none of their children followed in their cheap-ass footsteps. I did at first, and then I realized I was working myself to the bone for nothing. I never saw substantive raises or promotions unless I changed jobs. At my first internship, I worked late, and that became normal hours for me. Rare was the employer who saw my value and contributions. To them, I was a replaceable cog. I graduated from college in 1999, and I’ve had six jobs since then. My parents think I’m a “job hopper.” They’re horrified that I’d leave a job over money. They’re even more disgusted that I’ve asked for raises, time off, etc.

I’m so glad the pandemic has eroded the idea that we “have” to work and what we’re doing is actually necessary. Most of it really isn’t.