In her new book, Anne Helen Petersen explores the issues with American work identity, and how community over individualism might be the answer to changing our relationship to our jobs.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
While talking about individualism’s impact on work—and what a lack of a social safety net does to workers—writer Anne Helen Petersen brings up a story that recently caught her attention: San Juan Island only had one place for eldercare, and it didn’t accept Medicaid. It was prohibitively expensive, leaving many people to move away to find affordable care. On November 2, 2021, San Juan Island voters approved a tax increase levy in order for the San Juan Island Hospital district to buy the privately-owned assisted living center. Several residents running the campaign weren’t in immediate need of elder-support services, but they were motivated by the knowledge that they one day would. “Their pitch to everyone was like, ‘Sure, you’re 30, and you don’t feel like you need it now. But what if you will need it someday?” Petersen explains. They were successful.
On the surface, it might not sound like a conversation about work. But the idea of collectivism, of community focus, and necessity of policies that actually take care of people is just that—or, at least, it should be. In Out of Office, the new book by Petersen and Charlie Warzel, the authors detail how individualism creates and deepens inequities, including how work has become a thing of worship. The book argues for rethinking the shape of American work-life—including working remotely (and deepening ideas of what that means), the 9-to-5 workday, and the necessity of creating space in our lives for less work and more community.
All work is not equitable. Through the pandemic, the number of employees who worked remotely was just 35 percent at its highest point in May 2020, according to The Atlantic. Paid leave is still being debated; labor and workforce disparities have been exacerbated. Work crises are structural ones. And well-intentioned but often out-of-touch advice to find work/life balance is steamrolled by the grind of capitalism. The reality is that for some people, work feels tightly tied to identity, while others are overworking just to get by. Both ways, it feels, are indicators that work is structurally broken.
Can we reimagine work? And if so, what does it look like, and who does it work for? Following publication of Out of Office, Petersen spoke with DAME about individualism and work, the future of remote work, and where actual help for workers has to come from.
DAME: Early in the book, you note that bare-minimum employer responsibility has been recast as benevolence, and as a result, workers don’t feel entitled to fair wages. There’s a mentality that they should be grateful to be employed at all. Why do you think employers don’t feel more than a superficial responsibility to their employees?
Anne Helen Petersen: Well, I think part of it is that they’re not forced to. There’s no mechanism that codifies the relationship between workers and employers unless they’re in a union, and most office workers are not unionized. I said this a while back, but the way that offices have convinced workers that they’re not labor, that they don’t deserve labor protections, or they don’t deserve to even think of themselves as labor, but are instead doing something out of passion or because they love it, or they do it no matter what, or they’re lucky to be there… that lowers the bar again and again and again in terms of what the employer owes the employee. It’s all about what the employee can give the employer. They can give them gratitude; they can give them work. And the employer just is like, well, we gave you the infrastructure to do the thing that you love.
Where does that reestablishment of responsibility come from? Where does the help for workers come from?
Systems are interwoven. If one company decides that they’re going to have a more expansive leave policy, it’s good for the thousands of employees that they have, but it doesn’t actually have any real ramifications on the system at large. It’s harder to organize, to unionize, when you’re not close friends with the people you work with. But at the same time, the number one thing that is making it hard for organizations to unionize isn’t lack of friendly connections in the office, it’s the fact that so many of our state and local governments have eradicated labor protection.
Sometimes I think that we focus on these corners of the problem instead of thinking about zooming out and seeing what is actually in the way of making unions stronger and making labor protection stronger. Number 1 is the number of states that are right-to-work states. Number 2 is that labor laws, in general, have not been adapted in a way that accounts for the way work has changed. The sheer number of people who are independent contractors… there’s just so little to account for those organizational structures. How do you also combat what’s happening to various Amazon warehouses and Starbucks places where there are so many different ways that a giant corporation can get around the rules that are supposed to make it so organizers can, you know, form a union without penalization or without being attacked?
Much of the advice about “improving work/life balance” feels like attempts to sustain the unsustainable. Since so many workers are required to work for people who have full control over means of production and maintain power in the workplace, how much can we actually change about work without overhauling the labor structures of capitalism?
This is the thing: when it’s focused on the individual or the individual corporation, you can make your life a little bit better in the short term, and that’s meaningful on the individual and the familial level. But if you change jobs, you’re going to have to figure [it] out again. If you have kids, they’re going to have to figure it out for themselves, too. It’s reproducing the same problem over and over again for each individual to figure out, [and] not everyone has the power to be able to figure it out on their own. It has to be structural.
How do we get the structural changes in place? We have to get so many more people on board. How do we get so many more people on board? We open up some space—some mental space and actual physical time and space—for them to start a practice of caring about other people. I don’t know if this works, but this addiction to the status quo is not working, either.
It feels that the conversation about overwork is really two different ones. There’s overwork that feels necessary to excel or because productivity is presented as a virtue, and another version of overwork where there is no choice but to overwork because of economic and job precarity. In these conversations, how do we square these fundamental differences?
They are two different things, and I don’t think that we have adequate language really to describe the two. They’re almost like two different trajectories because the other thing about people who are overworked, spending too much time in job hours just to make enough to make a living wage, is that sometimes those same people are facing underwork, depending on the week or the month. They want more hours and can’t get them, and that means that they have to take on a second job, which then means overwork.
I think the primary distinction, in a lot of cases, in non-unionized cases, is whether the worker is a salaried worker or an hourly worker. Hourly workers can’t get sufficient hours, [and] then they have to find additional work, whether it’s doing gig work or taking a second job. That then puts them over 40 hours a week, but still, they’re barely making enough money. Whereas a salaried worker, they are more likely to be making a living wage, but they’re working far more than 40 hours a week. You have people whose job responsibilities demand much more than what is sustainable for a worker. They still might feel precarious, because even if you’re middle class, you’re not scared of not being able to pay for grocery bills, but you also feel like the bottom could fall out at any moment because middle-class life is expensive. Then, there’s the other form of precarity, which is like, “I have to get enough hours so that I can cover basic expenses and also the jobs that I’m doing, are oftentimes hard labor.” It requires standing, moving around, and it’s hard on the body, and so you feel that exhaustion in a more embodied way and you don’t have any recourse. You still have to be in that place for that certain amount of hours. You have far less control.
How does the conversation about the future of remote work benefit workers for whom working from home might never be an option?
There’s something that I think we already have shown: there’s more flexibility inherent to these jobs than was previously understood. Some of these jobs, I think, are going to be rethought. The second layer is: what if we are in this moment where we are questioning what work looks like? And how should it change [the conversation] for jobs like teaching?
Two weeks ago, I did this Instagram thread where I was asking people for their ideal schedule. If they could make their schedule for a week, how would they organize it for work and everything else? So many teachers said that kids are in school for too long. But because we don’t have fixes to the childcare crisis, they need to be in school. But [that means] teachers don’t have any time for prep; good teaching requires so much prep, and so much grading, and homework, and all this sort of thing. Teachers are like: “Now I have all of these hours in the classroom and have so little time for prep, which means that I just spend all of my off hours that are available to me trying to do prep.” It is the engine of burnout. They say the four-day work week could work—because you have four days to teach, and one day of prep. It’s not necessarily the same as, “we’re all remote or we’re all location-flexible,” but it is a meaningful change for people [and jobs] that we think are never going to change.
It seems like any meaningful change would trickle out: If we’re disconnecting identity and worth from labor, it seems like it’d also change things for people who aren’t in the workforce?
This is the thing that gets so lost. When people are like, “how dare you suggest that my identity shouldn’t be connected to my ability to work?” I’m like, “what do you think of the millions of disabled people who can’t work?” We think of disabled people as less valuable because they cannot work. And that is just false. I think, also, with the way that disability insurance is now configured, there’s very little space for people who are disabled to figure out ways to do the work that they can do but also have assistance to be able to pay their bills. It’s either you are able to work all the time, always, or you shouldn’t be working at all.
How does individualism impact or enable this lack of social safety net and shape the way we think about our work?
It’s such a self-defeating cycle because I think what happens is that as you become more focused on the survival of you and your close family unit, it closes you off from from thinking or voting in a way that supports this larger structural social safety net, because you’re like, “I don’t want to pay more taxes for things that don’t benefit me directly.” But then, what happens is that when your family does need something, whether it’s care or school, those social safety nets aren’t there to catch you.
This is [what’s been happening] all of COVID. The decisions that you make are less about how you’re going to screw things up for yourself and much more about the ripple, butterfly effect that it’s going to have on so many others. We are not always trained, particularly in America, to think in that way. I do believe, as we argue in the book, that maybe we’re at the beginning of the reemergence of collectivism.
What’s one thing that surprised you about the future of work and society over the course of your reporting?
The example that we point to in the book, the law in France where they tried to make it so that you can’t email after a certain hour, it’s such a failure. It doesn’t have any teeth or enforcement, and companies can really easily get around the mandate. That really clarified that if there is something that is legislatively bound, it can’t be trying to transform us back into a1960s-style workday. I think that there should be limits on the number of hours that we work, but how can we put limits in place that are also flexible, that are malleable to different seasons, and work in different weeks, and demands, while also protecting workers? That’s a question that I think the next generation of labor protections has to consider.
After doing all of the research and all of this thinking about the future of work, I cannot emphasize how much all of this depends on us eventually decoupling health care from employment. It just has to happen. It’s so clear, everyone that I talked says it’s so clear to them too, and I don’t understand why we can’t just fucking make it happen. It’s not that necessarily nationalizing health care is an immediate fix—lots of corporate countries with nationalized health care don’t have perfect situations—but they’re better than what we have now. I think that this comes back to that overall reticence to dramatically rethink how we organize things. In America, for being known as [an] entrepreneurial, innovative place, we are so resistant to radicalism in all forms.
Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.
Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.
But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.