In “Work Won’t Love You Back,” Sarah Jaffe Kills the Dream Job

A Black man and woman at work. The woman is teaching the man how to do something on a computer screen.

Photo credit: heylagostechie on Unsplash

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, there has been a growing sentiment of antiwork—the ideology that we should not be forced into labor in order to survive—across the United States. By and large, this shift in our cultural understanding of labor, especially given how intensely it contrasts with our culture of overwork, has been happening for two reasons. First, as the United States enters the worst economic depression and exhibits the lowest employment levels in nearly a century, many folks have been working less this year whether they wanted to or not. But this antiwork philosophy is about more than layoffs or the number of hours worked each week: As the coronavirus crisis has caused us to reckon with the dangers of capitalism with a mainstream fervor that has not been witnessed in recent American history, a growing number of people are starting to believe in more radical policies like universal basic income, tuition-free college, and free public housing. In short, we’re beginning to understand that no one should have to earn the right to financial security through labor. 

In this way, Sarah Jaffe’s recent book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, released on January 26, is arriving at the perfect time. Told from the perspective of dozens of workers in various industries and fields including retail, education, and technologyJaffe—the author of 2016’s Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt—examines and critiques the “labor of love” ideology that insists if we’re passionate about work, we’re not working at all. Each of the book’s chapters examines a particular professional industry where Jaffe both interviews workers within those fields and analyzes what labor has historically looked like in the field. The work is bookended by an introduction and a conclusion that both examine the themes of labor and love more conceptually, urging the reader to consider whether they really “love” their job or if capitalism has conditioned them to. Though the book has many strengths, Jaffe’s greatest success is her ability to deliver the final blow to the “dream job” narrative that has pervaded mainstream cultural norms for years.

In her introduction, Jaffe writes extensively about the ongoing relationship between labor and fulfilment. From the days of the feudal system until about 40 years ago, she explains, labor was a responsibility primarily forced upon working-class people. Meanwhile, the wealthy and even the middle class enjoyed a life of luxury and relaxation. More recently however, as the “labor of love” myth has become more pervasive, even wealthy people are working when they’re financially stable, insisting that they’re following their passions. (For example, Steve Jobs once famously said: “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”) Though we are trained by capitalism to work hard until and even after we land a job we desire and enjoy, Jaffe insists that “it is not a victory to have work demand our love.”

By examining various industries, Jaffe meticulously outlines that no form of labor can fulfill us. In chapter 3, she describes how teachers, who are often “the ultimate laborers of love,” are typically expected to undergo unfair work conditions, including low pay and long hours because they love their students. When teachers strike, they’re sometimes seen as selfish, putting their own financial security above the needs of their student. In chapter 5, Jaffe writes about the precariousness of working at a nonprofit, noting that though many enter the nonprofit world hoping to help people, they often quickly realize that “charity is a relationship of power.” In chapter 7, she critiques internships and other unpaid work, writing that though this sort of work is often marketed as a way to give young people job experience and pad their resume, it is usually unfulfilling and leads to abusive workplace dynamics where the intern is taken advantage of.

“The intern turns a job into something to be lusted after, dreamed of,” writes Jaffe, but “what really defines the intern, after all, is hope.” Notably, all three of these fields—teaching, nonprofit work, and internships—along with others that Jaffe focuses on, such as technology and academia, engender jobs that people work long and hard to achieve, earning degrees and putting in numerous hours before finally being rewarded with a position. But, Jaffe insists, this particular devotion to labor is exactly what the ruling class exploits to ensure that workers in all fields remain in a position of economic precarity. “We’re supposed to work for the love of it,” writes Jaffe, “and how dare we ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay rent.”

A red and yellow book cover that reads

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe (Photo credit: Bold Type Books)

Each of these examples furthers Jaffe’s point that the “labor of love” narrative is dangerous and exploitative. Notably, much of the capitalist “labor of love” propaganda has become even more relevant amid the pandemic. Many teachers, for example, have had to choose between continuing to teach for the good of their students or going on strike to demand better working conditions such as sufficient personal protective equipment and adequate technology for every student. Jaffe notes that women often bear the biggest burden of the “labor of love” narrative because a lot of traditionally feminized labor, such as housework and childcare, is typically associated with domesticity and family life, which is also closely linked to notions of love. The gender roles at play in the “labor of love” narrative have come to a head in the last year: Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that women of color, who dominate more domestic fields like nannying and house cleaning, lost 140,000 jobs in December 2020 alone, while both white men and white women gained jobs that month. 

One of Jaffe’s most interesting points is made in her discussion of how our unrequited love for labor has perverted our ability to love other human beings. “A side effect of all of this love of work has been that talking about love between people has lost its importance,” she notes. This is largely true: Though technically the full-time work week is capped at 40 hours, research shows that many people, young folks especially, are working much more than that, with technology making work inescapable and burnout on the rise. Though the minimum wage is steadily growing in many states across the country, our economic recession and the increased cost of living create conditions that require many working-class people to work longer hours to make enough income simply to pay their bills. The combination of our precarious economy and capitalism’s insistence that we must grind until we are rewarded with a job we love has kept us in a depressing cycle wherein we first pour all of our time, energy, and love into labor, and then allow only the spillover to go toward human connection. Though capitalism has convinced us that in working hard we will be rewarded with a dream job, Jaffe illustrates how our intense commitment to labor is turning us into the most efficient workers possible: devoting everything to labor and keeping nothing for ourselves. 

Ultimately, Jaffe’s work challenges us to rethink our relationship to labor by posing one simple question: What would we do with our time and energy if we did not have to work? For many people, this question can be difficult to answer because we’re so conditioned to focus on career longevity that our jobs become intricately tied to our identities. But, as Jaffee insists, there is simply so much more to life than labor, and rather than dreaming of landing a job we halfway enjoy, we should be dreaming of and organizing toward a future where we don’t have to love labor and instead spend our time loving our hobbies, our communities, and ourselves. “What I believe, and want you to believe too,” writes Jaffe, “is that love is too big and beautiful and grand and messy and human a thing to be wasted on a temporary fact of life like work.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to note that the pandemic was in 2020, not 2018. (01/26/2021, 11:49 a.m. PST)


by Mary Retta
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Mary is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter.