I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Hey, it is Ezra, so while I’m on paternity leave, as you know, we’ve got this all-star team of guest hosts. But this week, this is the week I am particularly excited about. Not to overhype it, but Rogé Karma has been with the show since July 2019, a long time now, back when I was doing the podcast at Vox. His official title is Staff Editor, but there isn’t really a title that can describe how much he contributes to the show. So much of what you think is me being good at my job is Rogé being good at his. So I am very excited to hear what he does with the mic this week.
Something truly wild is happening in the American labor market right now. In April of this year, a record number of workers quit their jobs. It was dubbed the Great Resignation, and then in July, even more people left their jobs. August set another record, and recently, the Labor Department reported that more than 4.4 million workers quit their jobs in September, which is now the highest number on record.
And at the very same time, we’re seeing a wave of labor strikes across the country. Part the story here is clearly a shift in the balance of power in the economy. Workers can finally afford to say no to terrible working conditions, and they’re doing just that. But there’s something else going on, too. People’s attitudes towards their jobs, their careers, and really work itself, those attitudes are changing.
A Pew survey from earlier this year found that 2/3, 2/3 of unemployed workers were considering a career change. The proportion of Americans who say they plan to work beyond the age of 62 has fallen to new lows. Workers are demanding not only higher wages, but better work life balance. And some companies are even beginning to experiment with the idea of a four-day workweek.
The Great Resignation is in part a manifestation of this great rethinking of the role of work in our lives. There are few people who have spent more time trying to understand how workers are thinking about this moment than Sarah Jaffe. She’s the co-host of the podcast “Belabored,” a Type Media Center reporting fellow and an independent labor journalist. And she spent much of the last year interviewing workers across the country, spanning industries from retail to health care to tech, trying to understand what’s driving this uproar we’re currently seeing in the labor market. But there’s another reason I wanted to have Jaffe on the show, and that’s because I think her writing captures what I’ve come to see as the foundational critique of modern work culture that is animating so many workers right now.
Her most recent book is aptly titled “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone,” and in it she describes what she calls the “labor of love” ideology, this belief that work should be more than a way to make a living, that it should be a vocation, a calling, a source of identity and meaning in our lives. Many of us, especially those of us in the Gen Z or millennial generations, have grown up really believing in this idea. But for Jaffe it’s a scam, a con, a false promise bound to be broken. Work will not and cannot love us back, and we shouldn’t expect it to.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about that argument. On the one hand, it really resonates. I’m one of those people who is constantly struggling, not only to invest less of my time, but also less of my identity and self-worth into work. And at the same time, I’m still an adherent to the “labor of love” in so many ways. I’m someone who has always viewed work as more than a job, as more than just a way to make a living, and I’m someone who loves my job and, at times, feels like it loves me back. And that makes for a fascinating, even if, at times, slightly contentious conversation.
As always, the show email is [email protected]. We’re reading them, even if Ezra is gone, so please keep writing in. My conversation with Sarah Jaffe after the break.
Sarah Jaffe, welcome to the podcast.
Hi, thanks for having me!
Right now, American workers are quitting their jobs at the highest levels on record. Some economists have begun calling it the Great Resignation. We’re seeing labor strikes across the country. As someone who has been doing a lot of on-the-ground reporting with workers, what’s your read of what’s going on here? When you talk to workers what are they saying about this moment?
The short version of this, not to put too fine a point on it, is that a lot of people realized during the pandemic that their boss doesn’t really care if they die. And I say that, and it sounds sort of sarcastic, but it’s also very true.
A lot of the strikes we’re seeing right now, specifically, are in either health care or manufacturing, but in any case, these are jobs that they were dubbed essential workers, they had to keep working during the pandemic. As conditions got worse, they were still pressed to produce. What happens in the sort of waning pandemic moment we’re in — because it’s obviously not over — is that these workers are looking back at what they did during this acute crisis, they’re looking, in many cases, at the profits their bosses are making and going, well, what the hell? You’re raking in profits, and you’re still trying to squeeze us for as much as we can possibly give you, and workers have had enough.
And so what happens if you have a union, and you have a contract, and you have this whole bargaining process, is you go on strike if you’re not happy with what they’re offering you. If you don’t have a union, like most Americans, the options seem more limited, and people quit their jobs, and go looking for something better.
Part of the story here, and I think what a lot of the conversation has been about, is that the underlying power dynamics in the economy have changed, at least temporarily, right? Workers can finally afford to say no to terrible working conditions and pay. But something you’re gesturing at is that a big part of what’s going on here seems to be a shift in attitudes towards work itself, towards these jobs. So can you talk about that a bit? How has the pandemic changed people’s view of work?
So we’ve been in a sort of 40-year period of work getting worse for most people, but in these crisis moments, you see this like rapid acceleration of trends that already existed, and then in the pandemic crisis moment, you have a crisis that’s like, it’s very, very physical and material, right? It’s a crisis of people getting sick and dying. It’s a labor market crisis, the way economists would talk about it, but it’s felt differently than like other ways you might have a scarcity of workers, right, because people are literally watching their colleagues get sick.
They’re getting sick themselves. They’re afraid of their kids, their family, maybe elderly parents getting sick, and I talked to fast food workers in several moments during the pandemic where they found out that one of their coworkers had Covid from a tiny little post on the bulletin board in the back. No one pulled them aside and said, hey, maybe you should self-isolate, and they walked off the job because they were just like, this is ridiculous! I should be at home, not serving food to people when there’s a risk that we all might have Covid.
So these moments right, where again like the workers really viscerally feel that like their boss doesn’t care if they get Covid as long as they keep serving French fries, or they keep making tractor parts at John Deere, which — John Deere is one of the workplaces that’s on strike right now — or the nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, that I’ve been covering for the eight months that they have been on strike now. They’re watching the hospital cut costs and layoff nurses after getting CARES Act funding, and they’re just going, enough is enough. We can’t keep working in these conditions.
I think this point about the visceral anger and frustration behind what we’re seeing right now is really important because as you just heard outright, the conversation in the media right now is on the one hand, conservatives really upset that people aren’t working. But even among sort of the mainstream media, among liberal commentators, it’s a very optimistic story, right? It’s about a quitters market, and this ‘take this job and shove it’ economy, and America getting its mojo back. It’s uplifting. It’s optimistic. And I think that’s true, right? This is a real moment of increased worker power, but you talk to some of the people who have actually quit their jobs, who are going on strike, and the conversation has a very different tone to it?
It’s less of a life is too short, so why not economy, and more of a like life can’t go on like this. So could you just say a little bit more about that? Like what does it actually feel like to be one of these workers right now?
Yeah, absolutely! I think when you talk to people who are working in these places — and again, I’m now thinking about Nabisco workers who went on strike — we’re talking about 16 hour forced overtime —
And then having to come back and do the same thing the next day. I mean, and yeah, on one hand, it’s because like management can’t get enough workers. On the other hand, they’re not actually trying to hire more people. They’re just pushing the existing work force to work more, and it’s basically exactly what Marx laid out in “Capital,” like the struggle over the length of the working day. It’s just like how much can you wring out of individual workers, and these workers are just saying, no.
And this echoes the labor movement of 100 years ago, 200 years ago, where they’re fighting for a 10 hour day down from a 12 hour day, and then an eight hour a day down from a 10 hour day, and just saying, hi, I want some of my life back. And then literally, when we say like life is too short, yeah, when you’re looking at maybe, one or two of your coworkers got sick with Covid, maybe somebody died, life is literally too short. I can’t even count the amount of times that workers in a variety of industries told me, you know, they say we’re essential, but what that really means is we’re expendable. You know, again, I heard that from fast food workers. I heard that from warehouse workers. I’m hearing that from the John Deere picket lines.
The statistics that I — I haven’t seen recently updated ones, but the last time that I saw good numbers from U.S. deaths, the field that saw the most people die of Covid was line cooks, food service workers, right? So when you’re talking about like a labor shortage in this industry, we were literally talking about people who are dead, and we sort of talk about these two things as though they’re really disconnected. It’s weird how that just sort of disappears from the conversation.
Yeah, and to put a finer point on this, one analysis found that in the first 10 months of the pandemic, workers in 10 different industries in California experienced more than a 30 percent increase in deaths. 30 percent. For restaurant and food service workers, it was over 40 percent. For warehouse workers, it was nearly 60 percent.
It’s bonkers, right?
It’s insane! Something you write about that I think is another piece of this is the sheer amount of emotional labor that modern work demands, especially these jobs, right? It’s not just a matter of doing the physical work, which is hard enough. You have to put on a smile. You have to cater to customer demands. You have to deal with endless complaints. And then you add a pandemic, you add mask mandates, and it gets taken to a whole new level. So could you talk about both the emotional labor that these jobs demand in normal times and then the extra layer the pandemic added on top of that?
So emotional labor in sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s explanation is the work that it takes to monitor your emotions in order to produce an emotional state in someone else. So her study was on flight attendants. Flight attendants have to be calm, and happy and perky, and all of these things in order to make the customers feel safe and comfortable and happy and well taken care of.
So Ann Marie Reinhardt, who is the worker that I profile in my book chapter on retail, she had just some horror stories. She had a scar on her forehead from somebody throwing a Power Ranger toy at her when she told them that they couldn’t take back, the third time, this woman had returned this obviously broken toy. And she’s just expected to sort of like deal with that and be pleasant and be berated. She was like, people would constantly call us stupid and uneducated and say like, oh— somebody said to their kid in front of her once, well, this is why you go to school, so you don’t end up like her.
That’s not a normal time, right? That’s a thing, and Anne Marie actually died of Covid last winter. The Times actually ran a lovely obituary of her because she was involved in the organizing when Toys “R” Us closed down. And again, these are the people we lost, and she was a lovely woman. She had put up with a lot of crap from people over the course of 30 years working at this company. So that’s before Covid, that’s what it was like.
And so in addition to like yes, you’re going in and you’re worried that you’re going to get sick, all of this, one of the early things that I heard from a lot of workers, especially like grocery store and pharmacy workers, was that they were— customers were coming in, and these people were really lonely because lockdown was incredibly isolating, and you would have customers who just wanted to talk. And imagine, you’re the checkout clerk at the grocery store, and you’ve got a line of people who are all standing hesitantly six feet apart, and you’ve got this nice old lady, who really wants to talk to you because she hasn’t talked to somebody all week. People described it as like, suddenly I’m like a social worker, and I’m just getting paid grocery checkout clerk wages.
Something I want to emphasize here, too, is that this kind of behavior, this kind of additional emotional labor hasn’t gone away just because we’ve had a vaccine rollout. You gave the example earlier of flight attendants, and to give an example from that industry, according to the Federal Aviation Agency, airlines have reported more unruly passengers in the first six months of 2021 than they have in any year since 1995, when they first started collecting data on this. The FAA has had to conduct about seven times — seven times — the amount of investigations into legal violations of passengers on airplanes than most years.
And it’s not just in that industry, right? According to one survey, 62 percent of restaurant workers said they’ve received abusive treatment from customers. And then you have these stories of grocery store employees being screamed out or physically assaulted. The restaurant in Cape Cod having to literally shut down because they are so overwhelmed with rude customers. Airlines having to ban alcohol sales because too many customers are getting out of control. To a lot of us it might feel like we’re living in a different world. It might seem like these jobs have gone a lot better, but they’ve still remained really bad in this fundamental sense.
You know, I always think about one of the signs at one of the early, early sort of anti-mask, anti-lockdown protests that was just like, I want a haircut. And it seemed so very like emblematic of what was going on there — that it was not just that these people wanted to be able to go about their lives. Going about their lives means needing people to serve you. And so that was the insistence, right? It wasn’t just like, I want to be able to leave my house. It was like, I want to be able to go insist that my hairdresser cut my hair like nothing is wrong, you know, that I want a haircut mentality is like on steroids is what’s happening when waitresses are being berated, flight attendants are being assaulted, nurses are being assaulted.
That entitlement to service that’s really ingrained in so much of everything, it reminds me a lot of Greg Grandin’s wonderful book “The End of the Myth,” where he sort of talks about the American conception of freedom being really wrapped up in the ability to, essentially, oppress others, but to, specifically, sort of expect service and, essentially, to expect certain people to be there to serve you. And we’re looking at a racialized pandemic, and we’re looking at these effects that have been just absolutely horrifying and incredibly unequal. And so for some people, we could go work from home, and be relatively safe, and just be mad that we couldn’t get a haircut. And for other people, again, they’re risking their lives, and in some cases losing their lives.
I want to pick up on something you said there, which is this idea that the American conception of freedom involves this sort of right to be served. And this gets at one of the reasons I’m a little bit pessimistic about whether this Great Resignation, this shift in worker power will be permanent, and because I don’t only think that there’s this expectation of service. I think there’s a real expectation of quick service, of cheap goods.
Workers aren’t only being berated right now over masks. People are pissed off that there aren’t as many workers around, right, and they’re taking it out on the ones that are left. People are pissed off that the price of goods is going up, and they’re taking it on those workers. There’s only a matter of time before people’s additional savings from stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, before that runs out.
There’s only a matter of time before these dynamics economically start to shift again, and when that happens, I guess the question is, do we the public, even if we say we support unions, even if we say we support workers, even if we say, yay, Great Resignation, are we going to be willing to give up cheap goods, extremely quick perfect service? Are we going to be willing to trade our consumerism for an economy that’s more just for these people? I don’t know, and it worries me.
Yeah, I think one of the things that happens when you have 6 percent private sector union density, when you you’ve just seen decades and decades of attacks on unions is that you also lose the sort of culture of solidarity that is built by organizing. So— you know, I’m reading this book right now, and it’s a labor history of, specifically, women’s organizing in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Chicago and New York.
In those places, you had massive citywide strikes and rallies. You had the Shirtwaist Workers Strike. This was like 20,000 women marching through New York City, demanding decent conditions in these horrible sweatshops. And this was a culture of solidarity that had been built through years of organizing and these kinds of, essentially, communities built across industries, across the sort of broad working class, through immigrant communities, through all of this, that we got used to seeing those things, and that actually built an understanding of people, that you support the workers in — at the big factory in town, when they go on strike right.
In the 40s and 50s, after World War II, we think of this as like a period of like everything was smooth and suburban, whatever, but actually there are massive, massive strike waves in this period that make everything that’s going on right now seem absolutely tiny because we should be clear that the strike numbers we’ve seen this year still don’t equal a regular year in the mid 90s, so — amid 1990s, I’m saying, let alone, what was happening midcentury, let alone what was happening early last century.
So we don’t have that sort of broad based social understanding of solidarity. I mean, a, we’ve shifted from a sort of manufacturing focused society to a service focused society that, in itself, has changed the culture of work and workers, and we can talk more about that later. But the other thing that it’s done is, like, the innovations can only come in terms of productivity and whatnot. Those innovations can only come basically by squeezing people to work harder because these are labor intensive parts of the process when we’re talking about warehouses, when we’re talking about delivery drivers, when we’re talking about the whole process that makes Amazon Prime possible. It’s just possible by squeezing workers harder.
It’s not actually high tech at this point, or it’s high tech that’s still like sort of attached to a physical human’s body. So when an Uber driver logs into the app with facial recognition, that’s actually being sent to a human sometimes who has to look at that and decide, and these are things we think are high tech, but it’s actually people. And you are only able to get all of this happening by sort of pretending that that’s not people, by pretending that you don’t know that somewhere in that Amazon warehouse, somebody is sprinting across, or whatever to get your book and your rubber chicken, or whatever it was, off-the-shelf, and put it in a box, and send it to you, so you can get it in 24 hours. That has to be made invisible, that process, and making it visible again is hard, but it is what’s happening right now.
So I’m really glad you mentioned Amazon because I think Amazon is a really good example of this. So there was a poll from earlier this year that surveyed people on a wide variety of companies and institutions, and 72 percent of survey respondents viewed Amazon favorably, second only to the U.S. military. And that’s because Amazon is cheap and convenient. It’s because we’ve learned that rubber chickens shouldn’t take a week. They should only take a day, and on this point, I’ve been reading this great book recently by the journalist Eyal Press called “Dirty Work,” which I feel like has really helped me understand the Amazon phenomenon.
So the book is centered around this idea that Press calls an unconscious mandate, which is the way that we, as a society, refuse to look at, refuse to acknowledge the truly brutal reality of the kind of work that makes our cheap, convenient lives possible. And so we outsource it, often to the most marginalized members of society, and that allows the rest of us to ignore it. One example he uses in the book is slaughterhouse workers. Most of us don’t want to look squarely at the sheer horror that’s required to make our levels of meat consumption possible, and yet we still demand cheap plentiful meat, so we just hide it away in slaughterhouses for the most marginalized workers to handle, often immigrants.
And Press talks about other examples of the same phenomenon: drone pilots, a psychologist working at a mental health ward, in a prison. And these are all sort of extremes, but I think you can tell a really similar story, more generally, about American consumerism, that we really like our cheap goods. We really like our same day delivery, and so we’ve sort of given this unconscious mandate, where we say, we don’t want to know how these goods are produced. We don’t want to look inside the Amazon warehouses. We just want our stuff cheap and fast, and that seems like a really fundamental challenge to any effort to make workers lives better. So I’m just wondering as someone who cares about the future of the American labor movement, who really cares about these workers that were talking about, how do you think about that challenge? Is it something that you think we can overcome?
We have to overcome it because the planet is on fire. One of the things that’s useful about the sort of Great Resignation, in particular, is to think about the fact that this is happening sort of across industries. It’s happening among white collar workers. It’s happening among blue collar workers. It’s happening among pink collar workers. And what it suggests is even the jobs that are supposed to be good jobs, even the jobs that we’re supposed to love are also draining and exhausting, and take a lot of our emotional energy to perform, and actually, that maybe we’re sick of those jobs, too.
Work is taking over all of our lives, and we’ve talked a lot about people who are still going into some form of office. But for those of us who are working from home — I mean I’ve been working from home for the last 10 years, so I was trying to give a lot of people advice when suddenly like a third of the work force is working from home. But what happens is work invades your home. It invades your bedroom. It invades your bathroom. You’re answering emails on the toilet suddenly, and you’ve also got to make sure your kid is going to Zoom school next to you, and the teacher on the other end of the Zoom is taking care of their three kids, while also trying to teach your kids.
And it’s all just like invaded every inch of our lives, and maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that should stop, and that’s actually a conversation I think we can have across industries, that doesn’t have to depend on you knowing Tyler Hamilton who works in the Amazon warehouse outside of Minneapolis, like I know Tyler. Tyler is pretty great. And I talk to people who do a variety of jobs because that’s what my job is. But also, part of my job is to say these conditions are everywhere. Work takes up too much of all of our lives. We’re all exhausted, and Covid took a lot out of all of us, and we could all use a break.
I agree that this frustration with work is far more widespread than just the industries we’ve been talking about, although I do really want to be careful here. To say that I, as a remote worker working in journalism, is just not going to experience the same amount of visceral fear for my life, the same deeply taxing emotional labor of having to fight customers to put their masks on, that a lot of service sector workers do.
At the same time, I take your point, I think there’s a way that this pandemic has prompted not only a reconsideration of specific jobs, but a broader reconsideration of the role that work plays in our lives, especially among sort of elite, white collar workers. And I think there are a lot of reasons why that’s happening now, but I want to talk for a little bit about the view of work that this current moment is rebelling against, that it’s responding to. So let’s take a step back, and can you tell me a bit about what you call the “labor of love.” How does it emerge, and what are its core premises?
When I talk about the labor of love, it’s a thing that’s been so naturalized that we sort of assume that people have always said, oh, you get a job in order to find personal fulfillment. But when I was talking about midcentury strike waves and things, when a much bigger part of the American work force — and the global North work force will say — was in manufacturing, nobody expected them to like it. Nobody expected you to go to work at the Ford factory because you really loved putting together cars on an assembly line. You went there because you needed to get paid.
So you get to this point of industrial capitalism where workers and the bosses have reached a sort of agreement. You have broad union density. You have decent conditions in manufacturing. You have more or less a naturalized 40 hour work week after those struggles that I mentioned earlier about working time, and this is, of course, as I said then, being upheld by strikes and things. But you have this broad understanding that work kind of sucks, but you do it, and you’re going to get decent rewards. You’re going to be able to buy a house, and maybe go on vacation once a year, and maybe send your kids to college, so they don’t have to work in the Ford factory.
And then we get the 1970s. We get de-industrialization because of the economic crises in the 70s, that are, basically, a profit squeeze, and again, deep stuff we don’t have to go that deeply into. But what happens when you start outsourcing production, automating production and shifting to a service economy is there’s a different set of motivations. So when you’re shifting away from this these unionized industries to non-union industries, where you have to smile and keep the customer happy, the norms of those jobs start to be bigger and broader across the economy as a whole.
And so you see this “labor of love” story then just seeping into everything. So my favorite example— not to keep beating up on Amazon, but to keep beating up on Amazon — was this Amazon billboard alongside the New Jersey Turnpike that said, get a job delivering smiles. And working in an Amazon warehouse is notoriously miserable. But there is still going to be that association with smiles, and it’s miserable in there! But this myth has become so pervasive in this economy, and it accompanies worsening conditions broadly across the entire economy. So you’re getting more sort of verbal pressure to love your job at the same time as your job is giving you less back, as wages are stagnating, as unions are declining, as benefits are going away. One of the big fights in a lot of these strikes is health care benefits and employers sort of chipping away at the health care that they’ve been providing for however long. So the conditions of work are objectively getting worse, as the pressure to love it and invest your emotions in it gets more intense.
I take your point that there’s been a huge amount of pressure to love our jobs, that the love our jobs demand from us is increased. At the same time, though, I think it’s important to talk about the way that all of us have come to actually really embody these views, this view of what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls “workism,” which is the idea of viewing work not simply as a mode of economic production, but as a mode of identity production, a calling, a vocation, the centerpiece of our identities and life’s purpose.
And just to underscore how pervasive this view is today, a 2019 Pew survey asked American adults about the secret to happiness, and a majority ranked a job or career they enjoy above marriage, above children, or any committed relationship. And this view is especially pervasive among the younger generations. In another Pew report, 95 percent of teenagers — 95 percent — ranked quote, “having a job or career they enjoy,” end quote, as being extremely or very important to them as an adult, which was higher than any other priority including helping people who are in need and getting married. That’s just astounding, the way that we’ve internalized this narrative.
The point that’s really interesting there is that this is generational. So I actually have an interesting story about this, too, because like just to illustrate how it’s changed. I was doing a book event for my book launch last winter with Dave Zirin, the sports writer. And Dave found this wonderful article from 1981 that was about workaholism being a new problem, and it was describing all of these things that now employers expect of you, to be more devoted to your job than your family, to work long hours, like all of this stuff that now, if you pull a random job ad off of — I don’t know where people find jobs these days. Monster.com — does that still exist? Whatever recruitment site — and you read the job description, 0 it’s going to say like all of those things. We want you to be a self-starter. We want you to be devoted to the job. We want you to care about all this stuff.
In 1981, this newspaper was calling this a problem. It was likening it to alcoholism. Now, that’s just what we expect of people. That’s my lifetime. I was born in 1980. That is a change in these expectations, and the space between those expectations and the reality of work is why everybody is talking about burnout right now, the expectation that you’re going to get a job, and it’s going to fulfill you, and it’s going to be exciting, and it’s going to be wonderful.
I remember when I was, I was so excited when I finally finished journalism school, and I could finally stop waiting tables and work in journalism. And then I found out that a lot of the working conditions hadn’t changed that much, and I wasn’t making much more money. In fact, I wasn’t making more money at all. And that gap between what I thought it was going to be like and the reality is exhausting. It’s debilitating, and it, at some point, people are going to snap, and that I think is what’s happening now.
I think that is such an important point, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on platforms like YouTube and TikTok lately and really doing so to try to get a better sense of what young people are feeling right now. And when you go beneath this layer of wit and humor and sarcasm, that’s so typical of these spaces, there’s this real feeling among young people that they’ve been duped, that the social contract they were told existed has been breached, that they were promised that if they worked hard enough, graduated from college, achieved enough, they’d end up in a career that not only sustain them, but that they would love, that would allow them to make a meaningful difference in the world that they’d never have to work a day in their lives, and that it’s been broken.
And the way that we often describe this is that young people are just burned out, or we’ll say, it’s just the fact that young people are in debt, or, on the right, the narrative is they just can’t handle the demands of work, but we have to go there. But I want to bring in, I want to bring in another concept here that I think is illuminating, and I want to get your thoughts on it, and that’s moral injury. So this term was first used with war veterans to describe the specific trauma that soldiers experience when they were forced to act contrary to their moral beliefs, by killing civilians, for example, and the way that specific psychological harm showed up differently than traditional PTSD.
And in recent years, there’s been a movement among physicians to sort of extend this term of moral injury to their own profession, arguing that what’s often called burnout is actually the wrong label to describe what they are experiencing, because the source of their exhaustion, their cynicism, their severe mental distress is not simply that they’re being overworked, but that their jobs render it impossible for them to actually fulfill their Hippocratic oath to the patient — their patient’s health and well-being to provide high quality care.
And so the way that Wendy Dean, one of the physicians who’s leading the movement — this movement to address moral injury in health care — the way she describes it is imagine you spend your entire 20s working day and night accumulating hundreds of thousands of in debt, enduring huge personal sacrifice, driven by the desire to ultimately help patients. And then you get to the job, and you realize that basically everything about the way the health care system is set up gets in the way of you doing just that.
You’re spending your time dealing with health insurance claims and filling out electronic health records, and you can’t deliver the quality of care that you got into this to deliver. And that this disconnect between the sort of moral oath that you take as a doctor, the purpose that is imbued in your profession on the one hand and then the reality of a health care system driven by the logic of efficiency and profit on the other hand — that that dissonance is why so many physicians are experiencing what looks like burnout.
And I think that idea that the problem is sort of not simply individuals being overworked, but the disconnect between our moral beliefs, our sense of purpose, our identity on the one hand, and the reality of our jobs on the other hand, I think that applies to a lot more than just health care. And I think a version of it may apply to this backlash we’re seeing among young people against modern work culture. So I’m just interested, as someone who has spent a lot of time reporting with workers and in workplaces like this, how you think about this concept of moral injury and how it might relate to the conversation we’re having?
Yeah! I mean this is fairly new to me, and I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s particularly interesting because the term burnout originally comes from research among health care workers, doctors, nurses and the like, and one of the specific things about burnout is sort of that loss of intrinsic motivation for your job. So it’s connected actually to this argument because it is this idea that you should be intrinsically motivated to do this job in the first place, as in not just motivated by money, but motivated by care.
And then when you are burned out, you lose that ability to care about it. And so it’s interesting to take it like even a click further, and be like, actually this is something that’s wrong with the system, which is what this conversation about moral injury is doing. It is turning this away from like these individual doctors have lost the ability to care about their patients, and more like this system is designed not to care for patients. The system is designed to make money for companies like Tenet Healthcare, which is the company that owns Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, right?
The last time I was in Worcester which was about two weeks ago, there was actually a billboard outside of the hospital that was touting how good the care was there and the nurse patient ratios, which is exactly what the nurses are striking over. And I was just like, if that is not just straight-up gaslighting your work force, I don’t know what is because the nurses are trying to force them to have better staff to patient ratios. And they’re here bragging about how great their staff to patient ratios are.
And something you’ve mentioned to Sarah, right, is that you’ve seen this in teachers, as well.
Their working conditions are their students’ learning conditions. If you are forcing teachers to have 40 students in a class, and to do all of their grading on the weekends, and they don’t have soap in the bathrooms — like this was literally a thing that the New York City public schools promised when the pandemic started — we’ll get soap in all the bathrooms! Oh, you didn’t before? The conditions are literally not conducive to health and well-being, let alone to being able to effectively teach. How do you do that? How do you deal with that dissonance between being told that your job as a teacher is to care about these students?
And it’s again, it’s the same thing that those physicians are doing— it’s pushing this demand outward and saying like, there’s only so much that I, as an individual human, who does care tremendously, can do if I’m not being given the facilities I need, the products I need. It’s actually that the conditions prevent me from being as good at my job as I could be, whether I am a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a public interest attorney. I’m thinking of like public defenders offices, which are constantly underfunded. There are so many cases that we could point to where this could be a thing that yeah, I think is really important to discuss.
I think the most sort of obvious professions that fit into this category are the kinds of ones we’ve been talking about, right? Doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, public defenders, labor reporters, right — they’re these professions, where there’s sort of an explicit moral purpose, and you were just not being given the resources to fulfill that purpose. But then thinking back to the origination of moral injury, it’s really at its core about the transgression of your moral beliefs, of your identity, of your moral core. And I think that this concept can actually apply to a lot more workers than we might initially think. And I think this gets back to what we were talking about earlier. There’s a strong feeling among millennials and Gen Zers, especially among the substrata of college educated elites that our work should have an impact, that we should be making the world better, that we should be contributing to something bigger than ourselves, and our sense of purpose is really tied to that.
And then there’s this distinct form of suffering, I think, that comes with having spent your entire life jumping through meritocratic hoop after hoop, accumulating tons of student debt, sacrificing, you know, your, parts of your personal life, with the goal in mind of making a difference, of finding your dream job, and then only to have those expectations shattered, which demeans like to find yourself in a job that isn’t making any kind of what you see as a socially valuable contribution to the world, or in some cases, as actually making the world worse.
Something that you’ve described in your own writing is getting to that job and realizing that the internal culture is completely at odds with any social mission the organization may have. And all of these are forms of cognitive, emotional, moral dissonance that result in something that’s like goes beyond just feeling exhausted, or tired, right? There’s this sense of existential anguish, of identity crisis, of spiritual malaise. And I can’t help but think that’s part of what’s going on right now, that as other parts of our jobs fall away, and we’re left with only these core pieces of them because of the pandemic and other things, that people are really starting to feel the full weight of this moral injury, and it’s just too much.
Yeah! I’ve alluded to this a few times already, but when I got out of waiting tables — which like, look, I love restaurants. I come from a restaurant family. I do not think that there is anything wrong with working in a restaurant, and in fact, it’s a much better thing you could be doing than say, being a derivatives trader. But like nonetheless, you know, I get to journalism excited to change the world, excited to be a labor reporter, and I have to beg, and scrape to get to do labor stories even at progressive publications, let alone like a mainstream publications, and the sort of exhaustion that still comes — and I am older now, and I’m more established, and I’ve written two books, and I still sort of have to fight with editors to tell the actual story and not to be too nicey-nice about it. You know somebody asked me to write about the labor shortage. and I was like, well, you know, I mean in some of these industries, again, a lot of people died, and they’re like, yeah, yeah, but like that’s not too big a part of the story because most of the people who died like weren’t working age. And I was like, a, they still matter. Hello! And b, like it is kind of a story. I think it’s an important part of the story.
And I have to sort of have those fights because I’m the one who goes out and talks to the people who are experiencing this stuff in their jobs. And I’m sort of carrying that with me everywhere I go in a way that the higher-ups at most places are not experiencing that. And if they ever did and worked their way up into whatever, they’re quite a distance from it now. And so, yeah, it’s exhausting when you’re just like, I got into this field thinking that it was going to do something good for the world, and actually, so often, I have to like beg to do the thing that I think is good.
And the frustrating thing about writing a book is on the one hand, I get to tell the stories the way I want to tell them. And on the other hand, the book is like the least accessible thing that I will do. And you sort of end up making all of these compromises in order to actually be able to do the work that you think is important still.
Yeah, and I will say, I have a slightly different experience with this. I want to share, as well, because I think there are different gradations of this that all get at this sort of core moral dissonance.
My first job out of college was as a management consultant at the infamous McKinsey & Company, and I was skeptical of the job. It took me until the very last day to decide to actually sign, and the way they got me — and I think this is important— is they basically told me that I would be able to do like cutting edge public sector and nonprofit work. You know, I’d be able to help governments and nonprofits make an impact, that the skill set I would learn at McKinsey would help me be the kind of changemaker and leader that can make an impact in whatever field I chose, for whatever cause I believed in. And this was before all of the scandals that come out about Saudi Arabia and ICE and Purdue Pharma that revealed, you know, how hollow a lot of that language was.
But at the time, you know, I bought it. I was like a young, idealistic college senior, who also happened to have a lot of student debt, and I was like, wow, like I can make a good living, and I can learn this skill set that will allow me to change the world. And I barely lasted six months. I’m surprised I even made it that long.
And the project that pushed me over the edge was one where I was basically not knowing I was even getting into the situation when I signed up for it, because of all this sort of jargon around, that they use around what it means to actually — like a cost cutting project, right? I didn’t really know what that meant. And I was basically helping a company execute on a plan to lay off 2000 employees globally, not because the company needed to do it to survive. It was already plenty profitable, but because the shareholders decided they can make an even bigger profit by quote unquote, “leaning out the company.”
And the way I remember those weeks on that project was I would go back to my hotel room with hours of work still to do. And I would just collapse on the bed, unable to move, and I found myself, for the first time in my life, unable to concentrate on work, unable to get out of bed in the morning, like too tired and exhausted to even finish basic tasks, and at the same time, unable to sleep because I was gripped by anxiety. And this is where I think the distinction between moral injury and burnout comes in because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
I’d worked so hard my whole life. The McKinsey hours were not new to me. The work really wasn’t that intellectually challenging, whatever — despite whatever management consultants will tell you. And yet despite that, I found myself like falling apart physically, you know, gripped by this anxiety and anguish, wanting to just like break down for no reason. And at the time, I attributed to burnout, but it wasn’t burnout. I had been burned out before. It was something totally different, and it wasn’t until I found this concept of moral injury that I was like, ah, this is what happened to me.
And so I don’t know if it’s even really limited to professions with an explicit moral aim. Consulting is like one of the furthest things from that. I think it’s something that can though afflict anyone, when the sort of harsh realities of profit and efficiency collide with your moral compass. And as millennials and Gen Zers continuously view their work as something that is a calling, a meaning, a purpose, something to make the world a better place, and then they go into workplaces, where they’re being, I think, increasingly sold a bag of goods of social impact, and then at the end of the day, it’s about making a profit, this is the kind of thing that’s going to keep popping up. And it’s going to keep popping up far beyond the professions we’d even expect it to
Yeah, I definitely think that that’s true about certainly consulting, but like finance, all of these things, right? Where you sort of get into it, and you realize like what you’re actually doing is actually harmful, and you are just sort of flabbergasted like how did I become this person? And that’s certainly part of it. The industry that I was just thinking about, and I sort of wanted to talk about also was like the arts, because like, yeah, on the one hand, you go into the arts, not sort of necessarily thinking that you’re going to change the world. Maybe you want to make movies, you want to make paintings, you want to make whatever, but like also most people are motivated by this thing being a thing that’s worth doing.
I remember talking to one of the workers at the Guggenheim Museum early on in the pandemic, and they were sort of fighting to not all get laid off basically. And they were saying to me, again, like we’re going to want art on the other end of this. Art is going to help us make sense of this, but of course, it is also a massive industry that makes a lot of people very rich and creates a speculative asset class for people who find stocks too boring. Paintings are now just like a thing that people buy because they are expected to appreciate in value. And you know what’s happened there is like when you think I’m going to become an artist and I’m going to be successful, and then you realize this person who just bought your painting is just buying it to put it in climate controlled storage and hope that you get more famous. And in 20 years, they can sell it for twice as much. That’s depressing.
And you’re also running into this dissonance of the people whose names are on the wall at these museums, right? The Kochs, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the Sackler family being, of course, famous for OxyContin. And you’re — again, there’s this massive dissonance between wanting to work at this museum, so you can bring these wonderful works of art to the public and looking at who’s paying for it, and who you have to sort suck up to to get loans from their collection for the thing. Like that whole thing of what is this supposed to be versus like what is it actually, and where is the capital sneaking in, I think it’s also very obvious in the arts.
I want to run a theory by you, which is I think this is getting more and more common. And I think it is a combination of a few things. So first, I think part of the reason you know that this is something that millennials care about is because of what —how corporations have begun to brand themselves. So you’ve gotten a lot in recent years of what I’ve come to think of as corporate virtue signaling, where companies that rely on sort of young, idealistic college educated workers increasingly frame themselves as having a distinct social mission. You’re not working in sales, right? You’re a client impact manager.
You mentioned finance earlier, but like you’re not a banker, you’re involved in impact investing. You’re not selling targeted ads. You’re helping to connect humanity or build the metaverse or whatever the hell they’re doing now.
Build the Metaverse, yup.
And I think this is expanding outward to — Southwest Airlines now frames its mission as connecting people to what’s important in their lives. I even saw a fast food restaurant the other day with an advertising campaign for new employees that framed it as like, come here and become a change maker. And so there’s this real sort of increase, I think, that these companies are responding to and shaping for the social difference that our jobs can make. This is colliding at the same time than more and more companies are framing themselves in this way.
The reality is that our world’s deepest problems are implicating more and more people and more and more companies, right? So economic inequality, climate change, like these things are really bound up with the structure of the economy. So it’s really hard for any company to escape them. That also includes sort of things like nonprofits and includes things like philanthropy because who has the money? It’s the people that are the wealthiest in this economy, which is often bound up with these problems.
And so on the one hand, you have this generation of young, idealistic kids who want to make a difference, who are being told by companies, come here and make a difference. And then because of the way that our economy is bound up with these problems, like are just structurally having these promises broken.
Yeah, I mean, there’s a chapter in my book on nonprofits for a reason, and it’s because you go into these things thinking like, I want to make a difference. I don’t want to be a banker. I want to be in something that makes a difference, but it turns out that the people who are funding your attempt to make a difference are also bankers.
So one of the things that happened, that I sort of tracked a little bit was like, after the first wave of big Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 that were really led out of Ferguson, Missouri, a lot of money comes into these organizations. But then the funders get bored, the protests slow down a little, bit and they start looking somewhere else. And then you get another big wave of Black Lives Matter protests, and suddenly, the funders are throwing money at things again. And this time around, we saw even more intense corporate virtue signaling like you said of all of these companies saying, Black lives matter, Black lives matter.
The money just sort of ebbs and flows with like the whims, and boredom, and guilt, basically, of funders, who are the people who are also running companies like Amazon. Jeff Bezos is notoriously stingy. I shouldn’t talk about Amazon in this one. But like the Walton family, they give a lot of money to very specific organizations or any number of big donors, who are coming out of the tech industry. This is where a lot of the donor money is coming from now, and they want nonprofits to be run like a startup.
All of these pressures that get put to bear on people who are desperately trying to change the world, but it turns out you can’t end economic inequality with money that is given to you by the wealthiest people in the world because actually it’s their vested interest to like not. So yeah, this entire field of nonprofits is essentially just like a Band-Aid on gaping wounds at this point and is designed to be so.
I want to bring this back to the book, because one way you can read this conversation is look, the problem here is that our generation has really unrealistic expectations of what work can offer, right? My grandfather got up every day and worked as a gas station mechanic, and yeah, he worked really long hours. But he didn’t experience anything like moral injury because he didn’t expect the work to provide some kind of meaning or transcendence or to be his way of making a difference in the world.
I talked to him now. He’s an immigrant from Lebanon, and he doesn’t even — like that idea of making a difference doesn’t even compute to him. And so I guess the assumption or the one implication could be maybe, we’d be better off having a more transactional approach to a lot of these professions, including nonprofit work, where we go in, we put in our work. They pay us. We’re not all friends. We’re not a family. You know, we’re not a team. We’re working for a paycheck to support our families, or support lives that have meaning outside of the workplace. Do you think that’s maybe one of the lessons here?
Yes, definitely. I think one of the things that is really why I wanted to write this book is that I don’t think that work should provide us meaning because at the end of the day, we are working because we live under a system called capitalism, that requires private profits. And in order to make those profits, you need to exploit workers, which means you need to pay them less than the value they create for you, and this is just sort of very fundamental stuff about how the system works.
So in order for that system to continue, it requires us to all essentially get paid less than we’re worth. Jeff Bezos does not actually work 15 billion times harder than the average person in one of his warehouses. You know that’s just physically impossible. He does not have 15 billion more hours in the day, and he’s not 15 billion times smarter. So what should we expect of work under this system is a lot less because it’s giving us as little as it possibly can.
But also, I think one of my projects is as a sort of reporter and person in the world is to think about how we can make work better for the gas station mechanic, for the Amazon warehouse worker, for you and me, hell, even for the Wall Street banker because, actually, a lot of the things that we all need are the same thing. We need more time off. We need to rest. Shorter working week sounds great, right? We need child care. We need a place to live. We need to be able to take care of ourselves. We need to be able to do things that make us happy.
And all of those things we can actually think about without having to be like, well, how can we train our expectations in this particular industry, so we just sort of expect less of it. No, actually, what we all need is often very similar. And it is to have work take less space in our lives and particularly, as I said, because the planet’s on fire, and literally the rate at which we produce and consume is killing us, all of us. And the things we need to do to fix it are actually things it would like make life better for a lot of us.
And yeah, maybe your rubber chicken takes a week to get there, but you have some time in that week to like I don’t read a book, go for a walk, spend time with your kids, spend time with your best friend, spend time with your new boyfriend. We can actually think about how to make life better for all of us without having to think about whether we like our jobs or not.
I think that’s a really important point, and I really want to come back to this idea of how can we make work better for everyone. At the same time, to go back to this conversation about expectations, I have to say I have mixed feelings about this. I had that McKinsey experience, but now I found a job that I really do love. And I feel like it loves me back, a job that I’m doing right now, where I to get up every morning, and I feel like I’m contributing to something bigger than myself, right, where I can do work that I find deeply fulfilling, and I, and I’m so incredibly lucky to have found that.
At the same time, I’m someone who works way too many hours. I am trying really hard to work less, to attach less of my self-worth to my job, to cultivate an identity outside of work. I recognize that although I’m incredibly lucky to have my job, my habits are still guided by sort of fear and anxiety and insecurity around my job.
Well, that’s what that lucky will do to you, right? Telling you that you’re lucky to have that job will convince you that if you are not the perfect employee, somebody else will come take it from you.
I think that’s true, and at the same time, it’s tough because these things are really bound together because I really do feel lucky. At the same time, there’s a lot of things. I get frustrated by the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure, the way that work dominates my day-to-day thinking, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it, and that my life wouldn’t feel as meaningful without it. I’m just wondering how you think about sitting with that contradiction that I think a lot of people sit with?
Yeah, I mean I literally start my book with the line I love my work, right. I sort of wanted to go there right at the beginning and then sort of circle back to it at the end and say, yeah, I actually think that humans need meaning, that we want to make things better for people, that it is hard on some level to have a job that is making things worse for people, and that I just don’t think necessarily has to come from work. It might, but it might not. I have a good friend who has a day job that he got, just like started out there as a temp — but I’m not going to tell you where it is — but you know, now he’s just sort of a person, is a midlevel desk job at this massive institution that he just goes to work, and he comes home. And he finds meaning in his relationships. He loves music. He has a massive record collection, a massive book collection. He makes enough money to sustain this kind of lifestyle that he wants, and he’s an incredibly politically aware and active person. And he just does all those things that have nothing to do with his day job.
This is where I get really optimistic. I actually think people want to work together and to live decently and to take care of each other, and that is something that is underutilized in our world. And it’s a lot of people because, again, being able to get a job that you love is limited to a tiny amount of people, and a world that actually cared about people being able to develop their purpose wouldn’t have a limited amount of lovable jobs out there. It would be one that gives everybody time and space to develop what gives them meaning, even if that’s gluing macaroni to a paper plate, if it is literally like making bad art like, great, I want you to have time to do that.
And if you want to write a masterpiece, I want you to have time to do that. And if you want to figure out a better way of treating Covid-19 and like all of these things. And some of this is going to be socially necessary that we need to figure out how to fund and distribute properly. This is a gift of the sort of essential work discourse is it did make us think about what work is essential? And OK, so we need doctors, and nurses, and scientists, and labs figuring out how to vaccinate against new viruses that come along. Those things absolutely have to happen, and in fact, we need a lot more people doing them.
So how do we distribute that work, so as the nurses who are on strike for eight months calling for safer staffing levels are saying, like we actually need a lot more nurses, so that everybody can have more time off, and more time to rest, and do a better job of paying attention to their patients. So how do we distribute that work fairly and compensated properly, so that more people are encouraged into it, instead of constantly having a nursing shortage like we have in this country all the time. How do we make that job, not necessarily more lovable and more like intrinsic motivation, but actually how do we just make it a better job?
I want to address that answer on two levels. One is the level of this collective political project to redistribute work. I’m definitely in favor of that for a lot of the reasons that you mentioned, but at the same time, I’m pretty pessimistic about some of the political and cultural obstacles to getting there. So I want to actually put that to the side for a moment and talk about the other level of that answer, which is the individual project to really reimagine the role of work in our lives.
I take your point that for most of us finding meaning and work is either not possible or not desirable, and that what we need instead is the free time to find meaning outside of work. But even if that were politically possible, it’s still individually really , hard and that’s because one of the biggest changes in American life over the last 70 years is the decline of institutions, where people used to locate meaning, and fulfillment, and joy in their lives, right.
This is the basic idea behind Robert Putnam’s, you know, now canonical book “Bowling Alone.” Religion is the most obvious example, but also people used to be much more likely to participate in Rotary Club and P.T.A. and bowling leagues, right? There were much — there was a much more robust, vibrant civil society. Workers are more likely to be part of labor unions. And over the last 70 years, those institutions have really declined, and it’s really, I think, created this vacuum of purpose, and identity, and meaning that work has come to fill.
And I think one of the products of that that you see in — so there’s, for example, this famous 1989 study of Chicago workers that has been replicated multiple times, but the study found that people at work often wish they were somewhere else. But that in questionnaires, these same workers reported feeling better and less anxious in the office or at the plant than they did elsewhere, which the authors called sort of the paradox of work, like we really like to complain about our jobs, but we have, actually, a really hard time with leisure.
In time surveys of the unemployed, often the jobless don’t spend their downtime socializing or making art. They spend it watching a lot of TV, and I don’t think this is a problem of individuals. I think this is a problem of our inability to reckon with the decline of institutions that used to provide these things in our lives and have sort of just left people alone to figure out leisure and figure out how to find meaning outside of work, when that’s really, really hard.
And I think on the flip side of this, the pandemic, I think, finally gave people some of the time they needed to like relearn the art of leisure, but still, I’m someone who’s trying to relearn that art. And it’s hard because these institutions, institutions that have the same kind of pull, the same type of gravitational pull, the same type of friction, the same type of capacity as our work, it is really hard to find them outside of work now. It’s constantly feeling like you’re fighting an uphill battle. I was wondering what you think about that?
One of the things that I think is really interesting about these studies is that there’s a lot that they’re not telling us. For instance, a study that I remember looked at people who were unemployed, and what the study found is that once you moved people essentially from the category of unemployed, which our society looks down on, to retired, which is totally socially acceptable, all of that anxiety that comes with being unemployed goes poof. There are plenty of research in terms of giving people early retirement in factories that are being closed down, things like that.
Chuckie Dennison who worked at the Lordstown GM plant, which closed in 2019 — Chuckie’s a few years older than me. He’s in his mid-40s, and he took early retirement. Chuckie’s retired. He’s like 45, and Chuckie has certainly no problem finding meaning. He like ran for local office he was traveling around helping other workers who are organizing to try to stop their plant closure. And when you sort of give people permission for unemployment to not be a bad thing, that’s different. That’s the thing that like Covid did.
I mean the pandemic was incredibly stress-inducing, obviously for a lot of reasons, including like if you, like me, lived alone during it, but you could have the time to do the thing without feeling bad because one of the things that makes unemployment so stressful is you have to find another job. And we have created this incredibly punitive system of unemployment, and so without that, what does unemployment actually look like?
What kind of anxiety do people have when they don’t feel like they should be working? Like imagine instead that you’re just like subsisting on your savings or your Social Security, and the Social Security payments are actually livable, and you can just chill. That’s a really different experience than the way unemployment is right now.
I will say that there has been a recent Nielsen study that found that retired workers watch around 50 hours of TV a week, which I’m not saying is bad. But I’m saying that I still think it’s sort of hard to find outlets for leisure in a world with these institutions have declined. But I also want to take what you said about unemployment and extend it, because while our society does put all this extra social stigma and economic pressure on the unemployed, there’s also immense social and cultural pressure to work on everyone else, too.
One of the most counterintuitive trends in America today is that high earners, the people who need to work the least are working more than ever, often even more than middle and lower class workers. And I think part of the reason is because at the end of the day, our society is constantly sending the message that what matters to your worth, to your status, to your value as a human being is your productivity. It’s your ability to work. And this gets to a different way of understanding capitalism that we’ve tried to explore on the show in different ways, which is looking at it as more than an economic system, of capitalism as a social philosophy, a form of public reason.
This is something that the political theorist Wendy Brown talks about — that embedded in our economic system is an implicit philosophy of human worth of what makes a human life valuable. And what makes a human life valuable according to that philosophy is efficiency, it’s productivity, it’s being a good hard worker. And that isn’t a problem when there are other countervailing forces in our lives, when there’s union and there’s a church and there’s P.T.A..
You have all of these competing definitions of what makes a human life valuable, but when those start to get stripped away, you’re left with what makes me worthy as a human is my productivity. So even if I’m off the clock, even if I’m enjoying my weekend, even if I’m early retired, I can’t put work down. And I really struggle with this in my own life where I feel like it’s not only these economic structures that are boxing me in because again I’m very privileged to not have to think about that as much. It’s really this philosophy of human value and worth that feels like it’s constantly weighing on me.
Yeah, and I think one of the things, specifically about neoliberalism, which of course, is the sort of political project of the last 40 years and one of the — 50 years now — one of the definitions of neoliberalism that I return to the most is it was a project of undoing social solidarity. And I talked about this in earlier with talking about the decline of unions means the decline of that sort of culture of solidarity, but also it’s the decline of practical experiences — like you’re saying — of things that value other than productivity.
And the famous Margaret Thatcher line that there are individual men and women, and there are families, there’s no such thing as society. I’ve thought about that so much during the pandemic because, of course, we were like shoved back into what I started thinking of as Margaret Thatcher units, because you were either an individual man or woman or a family, and you couldn’t have networks outside of that very easily at all. That was not a description. That was a promise. That was a project of making sure that that’s how people thought, that neoliberalism.
I quote Assad Hayder in my book talking about it as a project of social engineering, of pushing us to think that our worth is our productivity, everything that we need can be bought and sold in a market, and pushing that kind of philosophy into every facet of our lives, where it hadn’t been previously. And that is such a specific part of what was going on for the last 40 years that has really pushed us to have this pressure. And it has deliberately killed these other institutions.
It’s not just that they declined because people got tired of doing them. It’s — they’ve literally been crushed in so many cases, and we also have no time for them, that people have less time and less money to dedicate to these things outside of work. So we’re now at this point where we’re all really isolated from each other, and we don’t have these institutions that connect us, and we don’t have these spaces of leisure. Chuckie, who I was just talking about — Chuckie really loves to talk about the amusement parks that used to exist around Youngstown, that were made for the working people, who worked in the steel mills and the factories there, and those are all gone. They just like we’re allowed to decline and collapse, and these — the same way that these towns were allowed to decline and collapse, when the steel mills shut down and when the factories closed.
I write about the New Deal arts programs in my book, and a lot of people know that the New Deal paid for photographers to document the Dust Bowl and things like that. They’ve all seen the famous like Dorothea Lange photos, but like, what they don’t know is the New Deal also paid for community art centers. I love this. This is just like if I could revive one thing from the New Deal, it would be this. They paid for community art centers, and so they paid these artists, who were out of work to teach classes, so that like your average person could come in and make art.
And this is like — yeah, this is my favorite thing about the New Deal, and it’s something that I didn’t know until I was doing all this research, that like part of this thing was to create things for people to enjoy, so this is where we got a lot of our national parks. And we put public money into creating jobs, but creating jobs that people — to create things that people could enjoy.
So we began this conversation talking about the Great Resignation, and I want to come back to that because you’ve been talking about past points when we’ve made these investments. And it seems like this moment can be a real inflection point for a lot of the trends we’ve been talking about. Wages are increasing. Companies are being forced to make concessions. Four day work week experiments are being piloted, and it’s looking like a world of increased worker power could mean a world with both better work and less work.
But the increased worker power we’re seeing right now like, it isn’t going to last forever, right? People’s access savings will run dry. Parents will start reentering the work force as kids get vaccinated. When that happens, there’s a possibility that the pre-pandemic power dynamic sort snaps back to favoring employers, and I worry that when that happens, people are going to have to go back taking these jobs as just an alternative to poverty, that we’re going to forget about this move to reduce the work week or have less hours.
But the other possibility, it seems, is we decide through public policy to make these changes more permanent. I think there’s a reason that, for example, Germany, which is known as sort of this culturally industrious country, it’s also a place where working hours have fallen by nearly half over the last 70 years. And you’ve seen those same sorts of declines across Europe. And to your point, the U.S. has done this successfully before. Even just take the midcentury factory jobs we were discussing earlier. Those were not inherently dignified jobs. In many ways, they were terrible, but we decided as a society to make them good jobs, or, at least, better jobs, or, at least, less consuming jobs. So I guess my question for you is how can we do that again today? What does the policy path to both making work better and less dominant in our lives, what does that look like?
Yeah, at the end of the day, I am a person who thinks that worker power is not just a facet of the economy. It’s not just a facet of structures and policy decisions. It’s also a facet of what workers do. So we’re having a Great Resignation now because people are deciding to stop. We are having strikes in these industries, and we’re having workers at like John Deere who are voted down to potential agreements to go back to work because they’re mad, and that’s a change in what people are doing.
When we think about saying like as a society, we decided to make those good jobs, no man, the workers refused to do them unless they work good jobs. They were massive, massive strike waves, again, that make what’s happening now look absolutely minuscule. If you start looking at strike charts from like the 30s and 40s even, when we were in a depression, the amount of rebellion that workers went through, people fought really hard to get these conditions. It was not just a decision that got made by F.D.R. and Frances Perkins.
And so it is going to still be a struggle to make these things happen. And one of the things right now, I think, is that we’re being reminded of the things that are possible, and this is why this fight in Congress is so messy, about the Build Back Better bill or whatever it is that they’re calling the reconciliation bill this week, because one big chunk of the essentially donor class wants to make sure that workers don’t get any more ideas and does want to start pushing them back into those lousy conditions, and they don’t want government spending on nice things that working people might actually be able to enjoy.
And then the rest of us have seen that like, oh, under Donald Trump, the government can send us $1,200 checks. All right, cool, you told us you couldn’t do that. Turns out you can. Are people going to forget that that easily? I don’t know. Turns out you can just shut down a whole bunch of the jobs that people do. Turns out we can do that. Turns out we can rapidly change how we work. Turns out all of these things are possible that we didn’t think were possible before.
I talk about these things in the past because it’s to remind us what’s possible. And I think we’ve just had another experience that shows us that different things are possible. We could have the good future, the bad future — there’s a lot of options out there, but we’re going to have to fight for it. We’re going to have to fight for things like a basic income, but also we’ve seen the government do it because it just sent us basic income checks. We’re going to have to fight for better health and safety provisions. But we’ve had those before, and they came around the first time around because of workers and struggle.
I think that’s a great place to end. I could talk to you for another two hours about —
Yeah, I’m sure we could.
— specific policies and the American labor movement, but I think we’re out of time here. And so let me ask you the question we always use to end the podcast, which is: What are three books that have influenced you that you would recommend to the audience?
I want to start off with a recent book called “Lost in Work” by Amelia Horgan. It’s out on Pluto Press, and it’s a little, itty-bitty book, but it’s really, really dense and full of wonderful things. And it’s a great companion to my book and also like just a great book on its own to give you an introduction to thinking critically about work.
Another one that I love is from a couple of decades ago. It’s called “Farewell to the Factory” by Ruth Milkman, who’s a labor sociologist. And it is about factory work people’s relationships to it, and what happens when the factory closes down. And then I just want to recommend a novel because reading fiction is great, and art is important, and I’m absolutely obsessed with Jordy Rosenberg’s book “Confessions of the Fox,” which is just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant book.
Sarah Jaffe, your book is “Work Won’t Love You Back.” This conversation has not felt like work. It’s felt like leisure, so I appreciate you coming on the podcast.
Man, I really enjoyed that conversation, and I hope all of you did, too. A quick bit of housekeeping before we let you go though. We’re going to be slowing down a bit on the show in December. Instead of our typical two episodes a week, we’re going to be releasing just one episode a week, leading up to Ezra’s return, so stay tuned.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma, and Annie Galvin. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.