• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

The uneasy intimacy of work in a pandemic year


Mar 19, 2021
Yeyei Gómez for Vox

How capitalism and the pandemic destroyed our work-life balance.

As we confront the one-year anniversary of the US locking down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are also confronting the one-year anniversary of America choosing work above all else.

Many of us stopped seeing our families and friends, while accepting without question the idea that we would not stop working. We stopped going to theaters and restaurants, but we did not stop working. We stopped going to offices, but we did not stop working.

Our government could have paid people to stop working and stay home, where they could not catch the virus. It did not; it told service workers they were essential and sent some of them out to risk their lives working instead, and then half a million people died.

We were forced to choose between our health and our jobs. Most of us chose our jobs; those who dared to choose their health instead were offered almost no resources. When companies shut down and jobs vanished, the unemployed among us had to pry vanishingly tiny benefits out of an overtaxed and underfunded system only to be told they should really go out and find new jobs.

Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms. We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.

America has treated work as a sacred object throughout this past year, as something that is valuable for its own sake: more valuable than the money with which it is meant to provide us, more valuable than contact with our loved ones, than our mental health, than our lives, than the lives of our neighbors. We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished.

Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.

In 2011, the scholar Melissa Gregg published a three-year ethnographic study of the professional lives of a group of knowledge workers in Brisbane, Australia. Titled , Gregg’s study found that as mobile technologies like laptops and smartphones and wifi proliferated, and as jobs became more precarious and subject to mass layoffs, office workers had begun to experience their entire lives as work-centric.

Everyone Gregg spoke to believed that it was their personal, individual fault that their work took up so much of their lives: It was because of their personalities, or their specific situations. It wasn’t because of anything work had done to them.

One worker told Gregg it was her “own style” that saw her checking her email outside of her paid work hours, because it “gives me a peace of mind.” Another said she felt grateful that her part-time job allowed her to spend time with her kids, and so “I don’t mind working extra on those other days [for which she is not paid, while she is also watching her kids], particularly just keeping an eye on things so that it works.” Receiving new deadlines at 5 pm was just “the nature of project work,” said a third.

Gregg outlines specific strategies that corporations use to engender this sense of personal obligation to work in their employees. People naturally form bonds with their colleagues, and then they understand themselves to be a team and want to put in extra work so as not to let their teammates down. And then corporations take advantage of that human social bond. Meanwhile, a decentralized management structure means that the manager who failed to hire adequate staffing so as not to overwork existing employees becomes invisible, and thus blameless. When you have to work an extra shift because your boss is caught shorthanded, it becomes your responsibility, not the responsibility of a company that didn’t prepare itself.

There’s also the issue of self-identity. People in knowledge professions identify with their jobs, and typically want to present themselves to the world as competent and dedicated professionals. When they understand that being a competent and dedicated professional means working at all hours, they work at all hours.

And then mobile technology brings work into our homes, rendering it inescapable. “The coerciveness of communications technologies,” Gregg writes, “is their capacity to enhance a pre-existing psychological connection to the job, just as the convenience of the devices allows work to take place in more and more places.” Our culture makes us already disposed to spend our leisure hours thinking of work, feeling obligated to it — and then our technology provides an added incentive to just go ahead and do that work, no matter where we are or what time it is.

What we’re left with is a situation in which workers in knowledge professions find ourselves thinking of work at all times, obsessing over it, devoting ourselves to it, even in our most private and intimate settings, even when we say we want to be thinking of other things. What is this experience, Gregg asks, but the experience of being in love?

“Classic definitions of love see the beloved as ‘the only important thing’ in life, compared to which ‘everything else seems trivial’ … leading to ‘the sense that one is in touch with the source of all value,’” Gregg writes. “A significant number of participants in this study spoke about work using language very similar to these tenets.”

To be sure, Gregg adds, just as often, the people she spoke to talked about work in terms of “efficiency” and “productivity.” But, she argues, this attention to efficiency seemed to exist for its own sake, not to make room for anything new. “The time spent engaged in work-related tasks regularly rivaled or came at the expense of other experiences,” she writes. “There was often little time for the very domestic or leisure pursuits we might consider to be the rationale for needing to be efficient in the first place.”

It makes sense to be obsessed with your job if you’re not sure you can get another one easily. But that, too, Gregg argues, is part of the coercion of modern office work in our era of mass layoffs, and just one more way we are pushed to treat it as a love object. “Precarity,” she writes, “is another manifestation of work’s intimacy.”

We obsess over our jobs because we know we can’t count on them. So we keep thinking about them after we leave the office, and in the end we find ourselves unable to get them out of our minds, like a bad boyfriend.

Gregg was writing from 2008 to 2011, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 recession. But her conclusions about post-recession knowledge workers in Australia seem to be if anything more relevant to pandemic-era office workers in the US, because the pandemic has only exacerbated the issues she identified.

Our colleagues are some of the only human contact we have left, so of course we feel extra loyalty toward them. Our work identity is all that is left to us when other activities are forbidden, so of course we feel compelled to think about it even when we are off the clock. Layoffs have cascaded across the country, so of course we feel more insecure than ever.

And now work doesn’t only leave the office to sneak into our houses for a little idle email-catchup here and there.

Work is in our homes all the time now. Work has very literally gone to bed with us. Work wants to have a serious talk about where this relationship is going.

Our tendency to treat work like a lover is the result of centuries of social conditioning and systemic incentives that few of us have the power to redirect on our own. The only way to fix these problems, to let something besides the labor we sell to our employers be the loved object at the center of our lives, is to pursue systemic change: union protections, labor law reforms, repairs to our social safety net that mean we don’t have to obsess over the precarity of our jobs.

But while we are pursuing systemic change, we do all still have to live in our existing, not-yet-changed system. So what options do we have for surviving in this system in a pandemic year? How do we find a way of living our lives that doesn’t revolve around a fetishistic obsession with work?

There are a few possibilities for survival in Jenny Odell’s 2019 book , a manifesto of sorts against what Odell calls “the attention economy.” That’s the idea that we should be caught up in our work, our screens, and everything else that capitalism wants to sell to us or extract from us at all times.

“We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations,” Odell writes, “and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found.” And so the “nothing” in Odell’s title is not really nothing, but is instead something that capitalism understands to be valueless. It’s time apart to think, reflect, connect, and converse. Time that does not go into producing goods to be sold or into buying goods from other people.

Odell argues that we can create that time through a conscious turning away from our screens and the pursuit of physical context, both in our neighborhoods and in our natural landscapes. “I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community,” she writes. “From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of ‘doing nothing’ is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.”

Odell’s logic suggests that to prevent work from invading the time in which we are not paid to do it, we must be intentional about what we do in our leisure time. So instead of scrolling listlessly through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram in search of frictionless connection with other people, we can join mutual aid groups and form genuine bonds with our actual neighbors, in person. Instead of passively accepting whatever entertainment our screens offer us while we plug away at off-hours work, we can become interested in the natural landscape all around us, in the weeds that sprout up from the cracks of our sidewalks and the birds that nest on our telephone wires. And this shift in attention, Odell argues, will allow us the time and space to form richer, more nourishing connections with the world in which we live.

To turn away from work and the technology that enables it is, in this moment, an act of extreme privilege. But Odell argues that if we have the ability to push back against the systems that teach us to build our lives around work, then we have an ethical duty to do so.

“Wherever we are, and whatever privileges we may or may not enjoy, there is probably some thread we can afford to be pulling on,” she says. “Sometimes boycotting the attention economy by withholding attention is the only action we can afford to take. Other times, we can actively look for ways to impact things like the addictive design of technology, but also environmental politics, labor rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, anti-racism initiatives, measures for parks and open spaces, and habitat restoration — understanding that pain comes not from one part of the body but from systemic imbalance. As in any ecology, the fruits of our efforts within any of these fields may well reach beyond to the others.”

To withhold our attention from our work and from our screens may make us feel guilty, as though we are somehow cheating. But that shouldn’t be surprising: We’ve been taught to treat work as a loved one. So turning our attention away from it, to other and more valued objects, would be a kind of adultery.

Toward the end of How to Do Nothing, Odell describes driving down a highway outside Santa Cruz, coming around a corner, and suddenly seeing a nature preserve filled with hundreds of birds. “Unexpectedly,” she writes, “I started crying.” She felt an overwhelming connection with the birds who lived in this refuge, a terror that it might be destroyed, and a sense that by preserving the birds and the refuge, she could somehow preserve herself. And she had a very clear sense of the right term for this sense of connection.

“It’s a bit like falling in love — that terrifying realization that your fate is linked to someone else’s, that you are no longer your own,” she says. “But isn’t that closer to the truth anyway? Our fates are linked, to each other, to the places where we are, and everyone and everything that lives in them. How much more real my responsibility feels when I think about it this way!”

As Gregg recognized, our technologies are coercive. They conspire with capitalism to make us feel that we should spend all our time gazing at our screens, absorbing frictionless, context-less ideas. But Odell suggests that if we are able to build connections to the world outside of the attention economy, we will find our screens less compelling — and that this shift, too, will be an act of love.

“I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days. It’s not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing that I couldn’t turn away,” Odell writes. “That’s the other thing that happens when you fall in love. Friends complain that you’re not present or that you have your head in the clouds; companies dealing in the attention economy might say the same thing about me, with my head lost in the trees, the birds, even the weeds growing in the sidewalk.”

We are, hopefully, only months away from reaching herd immunity in the US. But when this pandemic ends, the structures will still be in place that brought us to this relationship with our work, this fraught and fetishized intimacy with our jobs and with getting enough done, this belief that this pursuit is worth more than our lives.

We do not have to be trapped in an endless, stifling love affair with our own labor. We can build our lives around other things, things that matter more to us: our loved ones, our communities, the world in which we live. We can try to reform our labor system.

We can start by teaching ourselves how to turn away from work.

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