The Jewish Chronicle
HOW WE WILL WORK
The pandemic will fundamentally alter how we work. That’s what we keep being told — that in future we’ll work more flexibly, our desks will be remote, and we’ll have a broader sense of what we want out of our jobs. Equally, we’ll appreciate our key workers more — not just clapping for carers, but acknowledging how nurses, gig economy drivers and supermarket staff have kept us going.
It’s a nice fantasy, but will it come to pass? Sarah Jaffe is one who hopes it will, or rather hopes we are on course for a reckoning. In particular, Jaffe, whose book Work Won’t Love You Back makes a passionate case for structural change in the labour market, wonders what those who have previously been undervalued will do next. Will they accept low pay and unsociable hours, or will they fight back?
A year on from the start of the pandemic, the jury is out. “At the beginning it seemed like we might be ready for change, but now lots of people think we could go back to normal. The question of what will happen is still very much an open one,” says Jaffe, 40, when I Zoom into her New York apartment.
Jaffe, who talks at Sorkinesque warp-speed, has been reporting on labour in the US and UK for years. In her view, the pandemic has both shone a light on insecure work and exacerbated the downsides of many jobs. “I don’t think anybody’s work life has actually got better in the last year. For most it has got worse in some way or another.”
For her the main difference is missing in-erson interviews, but points out that for many the pandemic has exposed deep-seated issues, whether that’s parents struggling to balance inflexible jobs with home-schooling, or employees forced into dangerous conditions.
“Whether it’s working in the grocery store, the bus driver, or delivery drivers, for everybody who is going to work it’s got massively more dangerous.” Discussing the proposed one per cent pay-rise for nurses, she says “we don’t pay healthcare workers nearly enough and treat them nearly well enough at the best of times. Then in a major crisis when they have been risking their lives just by walking in the door, it’s that much more obvious their work has been incredibly undervalued for so long.”
For too many people, says Jaffe,
I don’t think anyone’s work life has got better in the last year. For most it has got worse.
“work doesn’t pay, and when work doesn’t pay you enough to live on why the hell should you work?” In her view — backed by statistics on in-work poverty —“this idea somebody invented that tells you that if you work really hard you will get rewarded is not true anymore.” Thus her question is: “how long do we expect people to continue to go to work when that work might kill them and doesn’t even pay that well?”
Jaffe is, undoubtedly, on the radical leftist edge of political thinking, but she makes a convincing case for things being at boiling point. Her first book was about social activism post-2008; despite the “explosion” of protests, “nothing has fundamentally changed since… nothing happened to all of the people who broke the global economy. We’re still dealing with that.”
“That anger is still there,” she adds, only now it’s bolstered by “another series of massive job losses, another level of misery, another way work has got worse. There’s only so long people can take that.” That emotion can be channelled in multiple ways — the election of a populist president, say — but she thinks the conditions for change are rife. “I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish, a lot of things are terrible and millions have died — but here we are.”
Jaffe, who “finds a lot of connection with a Jewish socialist feminist tradition” (she has pictures of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemberg on her wall) is vocal on how the pandemic has impacted working women and thinks “a feminist conversation about working time” is desperately overdue. Her book discusses the age-old quandary of ‘the second shift’ many women do after returning from work.
As early as May the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that mothers were 1.5 times more likely to have quit or lost their job during the first lockdown; the second school closure is unlikely to have improved things. “It’s so clear women are being pushed out of the workforce because they’re still responsible for most of the work at home,” bemoans Jaffe.
In the short term the issue may be that “men haven’t stepped up”, but she thinks the issues run deeper than pandemic-related school closures, arguing that the way that this problem was once solved —
women hiring other women in domestic roles — isn’t the solution.
Instead, she wants to address the very notion of the nine to five five-day working week, set up for an era in which one wage sufficed and men had a wife at home for domestic concerns. “We’re still in a work week scheduled around the idea that the person who goes to work is a man who has a wife.”
That no longer applies to most couples — and it’s not just a gender issue. “If you are two women with two children and both have full time jobs, there is still no one to be the wife in the way that wife meant the work that was done,” she says. Nor is it a couple issue; Jaffe lives alone and sighs that her flat is a mess because she doesn’t have a “wife” to clean it when she’s working long hours. “That second shift, it’s a time in the day problem.”
To her, the pandemic has therefore crystallised an obvious solution. “The working week doesn’t work, and a lot of people are unemployed, so what if we all worked less? We have to figure out how to economically redistribute that.”
Talk of economic redistribution may feel rather like a fringe debate, but there is evidence to suggest things have shifted. Since Covid struck the UK’s government has propped up employment like never before; and on the day Jaffe and I speak, President Biden passes into law a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, including an historic expansion of child tax credit.
For Jaffe, the package doesn’t go far enough — not least because many of the measures are temporary — but she sees it as “some indication we’ve started considering the unpaid work of women in the home as something worth talking about. If we can make that permanent that would be a beginning of a big change.”
More broadly, given her leanings, she is hopeful the pandemic will see us return to collective bargaining and to workers reclaiming their rights; she mentions both the UK Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers are workers, not self-employed, and a push from Amazon workers in Alabama to unionise. “There’s a confluence of things we could see exploding.”
But after a seismic shock to working life, it’s not just about change for those in the most challenging situations. Jaffe says the experience should open all of us “to what we can bargain us from employers”.
In the book, she talks about well-paid videogame developers stuck in a culture of never leaving their desks. “Especially now when employers might not have money to give you a financial raise, you can negotiate for more time off, for an absolute cut off at 5pm every day. You can negotiate for other things,” she says. “I would be fascinated to see how many more people are bargaining for that kind of thing in the months to come.”
As she argues in Work
Your Back, power is what matters.
“Enjoyment will always be subjective, but power you can write into a job contract.
Here are the rules, you can write in ‘I come in at this time and leave at this time, we get a break for x amount of time, I get to not check my emails after hours’. All these things we can actually negotiate if workers have more power. That should be the goal rather than trying to think about feelings.” Against a backdrop of being advised to find careers we are passionate about, it’s unusual advice, but there have been signs, even before the pandemic, that millennials rate different qualities of jobs more highly than previous generations. “A lot of it is around free time, and autonomy, and less just pay, hard work and identity,” says Jaffe. Whether this will continue post-pandemic is anyone’s guess. This time last year, Jaffe was in London finishing the draft of her book, flying home just as the pandemic hit. A planned rest period hasn’t happened; she’s been busier than ever as suddenly everyone has wanted to talk about work and the problems with it — and whether the structures that have been in place for decades are fit for purpose. “Timing is everything,” she says, deadpan. “This book could have been five times as long.”
Enjoyment will always be subjective but power you can write into a job contract