Friday, January 17, 2014

... That Magical Time of Year When a Worker's Thoughts Turn To Love

Various permutations of this essay by Miya Tokumitsu, which attacks the concept of "Doing What You Love" (DWYL), has been making the blogospheric rounds to much applause. Allow me to dissent. Tokumitsu does not do nearly enough to demonstrate a causal link between the DWYL mentality and erasure of the lives of working class. Indeed, if anything DWYL is a valuable contributor to our understanding of "work", including for the "non-creative" working class.

Summarizing and simplifying, Tokumitsu observes that there only certain classes of jobs, typically held by certain classes of people, which are even candidates to be a job one might "love". The vast majority of jobs, including jobs necessary for the maintenance of "loved" jobs, are not going to be particularly fun or intellectually stimulating no matter what we do. Therefore, DWYL is inherently classist: "labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love--which is, in fact, most labor--is erased." Meanwhile, DWYL encourages exploitation -- it is basically a way to make workers content with getting less in the way of tangible proceeds in favor of nebulous emotional satisfaction.

As someone who has in the past few years done both a job that I loved (in the classic DWYL form), and a job that, we shall say, does not fit into that category, I feel well-positioned to discuss this issue. And given that the latter job paid triple the former (loved) one, I can even speak to the trade-off between tangible and intangible job benefits.

But let's not start with me; let's start instead with the claim that DWYL is class-divisive and "erases" workers whose jobs are not candidates to be loved. Put bluntly, I'm skeptical that the wealthy need the aid of a mantra to forget about the life and working conditions of the lower classes. That's really more of the default setting. The alternative to caring about how workers feel about their jobs emotionally is not necessarily caring about what workers get out of their jobs tangibly -- it can very easily be (and historically has been) caring about neither. A similar critique can be leveled at her claim that if someone does not obtain profit from pursuing their passion, DWYL implies that the fault must be in their enthusiasm. While I've never actually heard that assertion made, I admit I'm never surprised at the capacity of some people to attribute any deficiency in the lives of the working class to their own deficiencies. Suffice to say, this tendency predates DWYL, it is not caused by it.

What DWYL recognizes is that the tangible products of a job are not sufficient to provide for fulfilling lives. One can be tangibly provided for at market rates and still not have "enough". In other words, DWYL is in many respects a (admittedly inchoate) statement about a substantive entitlements -- that we are not owed just whatever dollar amount our employer puts in our pocket, but some level of happiness, dignity, and respect out of our job. Those values should be included in our calculus of what workers are provided.

Indeed, some of her treatment of improved intangible working conditions strikes me as almost incomprehensible. She quotes Marc Bousquet as saying that the "loved" academic job environment actually presents a model for corporations:
How to emulate the academic workplace and get people to work at a high level of intellectual and emotional intensity for fifty or sixty hours a week for bartenders’ wages or less? Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?
From this analysis, she concludes "Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love."

Reading the above, one would think that the way a corporation makes people love what they do is by casting an incantation or spiking the cafeteria with hallucinogenic drugs. In reality, to make workers happy by means other than a pay raise, one has to do things that make workers happier with their jobs. Those are real benefits, not chimeras -- I'd take my less-paying but more loved job over my less-loved, better paying counterpart in a heartbeat. The trade-off isn't infinite, of course, but all that demonstrates is that neither the tangible nor intangible proceeds of work are sufficient for self-fulfillment.

Which cycles us back to those workers whose jobs are not and cannot be made loveable. We should say here that almost any job can be made, if not loveable, than at least more likeable -- by being treated fairly and with respect, for instance, or by having some security such that one isn't not in constant dread of being tossed on the street. But even to the extent these jobs lie beyond true DWYL, the concept still matters because it provides a contrast to the prevailing counternarrative -- "the value of a honest day's work." That mantra, which by my lights is far more likely to represent the real competitor to DWYL (as compared to some sort of cross-class solidarity pressing for higher salaries for everyone), cares neither whether the worker is happy or whether they getting significant tangible returns -- value comes from working whatever job the market provides at whatever rate the market pays. I'm reminded of the archetypical 50s parent who, upon hearing that his son isn't happy at work, bellows that "You hate your job? I hated my job too! That's the point of a job!"

DWYL recognizes, at the very least, that the emotional side is important -- and anytime the American cultural zeitgeist recognizes any form of substantive entitlement as necessary for a fulfilled life, I'm inclined to jump on it. And to the extent we do view DWYL as a form of substantive entitlement and we simultaneously reckon with the fact that certain people are not (and likely cannot get it), that does provide a fulcrum from which those people can leverage a claim for greater tangible benefits as compensation. Of course, I'm not saying it's a guarantee that thinking about DWYL will cause wealthier Americans to recognize the deprivations faced by their working class peers -- as I said, wealthy Americans hardly need any excuse to ignore others outside their class. But attribute the lack of cross-class consciousness to DWYL is difficult to justify.

The bottom line is that the notion that we can view work solely through the lens of the monetary returns workers get doesn't cohere to how people of any class actually view their work. We don't just want "fulfillment" or "respect", but we don't just want a dollar figure either. It's obviously true that if one is being paid little, the marginal value of each additional dollar is going to be higher compared to additional "respect" or whatnot. But that doesn't change the fact that thinking about work in a way that's helpful to workers requires a holistic approach. DWYL matters because it is a recognition about what workers are owed, and any sort of public understanding of the proceeds of work that starts from what workers deserve, rather than what the market deigns to give them, is in my book a good thing

1 comment:

PG said...

"While I've never actually heard that assertion made, I admit I'm never surprised at the capacity of some people to attribute any deficiency in the lives of the working class to their own deficiencies. Suffice to say, this tendency predates DWYL, it is not caused by it."

I think this would be interesting to trace in Anglo-American culture. Given that we used to have a class of people who didn't really "work" in the sense of needing to put in 8 hours a day to get paid so they could eat (the owners of large plantations, who were seen as the successors to English gentry), I'm curious about how the transition to a society in which the upper class also expects to work has affected their perception of work. Certainly the English gentry looked at pretty much all work as a crappy thing you did because you were so unfortunate as to be born poor or middle class.

Anyway, having been raised by Asian immigrants, I've always looked at DWYL as one of those crazy white people things like sleepovers and dating before college.