State of Disunion

Work Life Doesn’t Have To Be Like This

Before the shutdown, our jobs consumed us without giving much back. The pandemic allowed many of us to reassess our relationship to work—but can we actually afford to make the necessary changes?

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Just like any normal person, when I am feeling crushed by productivity culture, I think about Jeff Bezos doing laundry. Not that I imagine the ultra-wealthy titan of capitalism rinsing out his own shirts, but that I wonder about his preferences when he was just a guy in front of the internet asking it to make him the world’s biggest bookseller. Was he more of a powder or liquid kind of guy? Did he sort meticulously or just wash cold and pray? Was he a prophet on lint balls over dryer sheets, or was he a retrograde adherent of fabric softener?

The answer to all of these questions—and the balm to my agitated soul—is straightforward: Jeff Bezos likely has never done his own laundry, at least not with the frequency to develop habits. He also has probably never planned or prepped for meals, tracked and refilled the home inventory, or maintained a cleaning rotation. Even though his company, Amazon, can provide me with any item I could imagine (and, frankly, some I can’t) to manage those tasks, I remind myself that none of it was born from necessity. Jeff Bezos has made his billions by not doing laundry.

The rest of us are not so lucky.

Whether we drive the 4 a.m. bus, deliver on deliverables, or create the convenience enjoyed by those too-busy bosses, we are forced to organize our lives as if the labor of survival happens by autopilot. The assumption that someone else will provide a shortcut or even do the work completely provides the blueprint for the invisible architecture of our economy. Have you ever had an opening shift after a closing one despite an hour-plus commute? Do you wonder at the prevalence of 24-hour bodegas instead of regular-hour supermarkets in certain neighborhoods? Did it recently strike you as odd that despite massive improvements on efficiency, the work week is still five days after nearly a century? These are the products of a management caste that has never practiced taking care of themselves. Used to this silent and invisible labor, they take it for granted to the point that they know neither what it costs nor what it is worth.

It is a surprisingly small amount of money that allows you to stop thinking about refilling your Metrocard or topping off your gas tank or carefully watching your grocery budget. A little bit more than that and delivery for even minor items can become a fact of life, and a subscription service for meals streamlines the process of figuring out what to eat. Step by step along the income scale, inconvenience becomes the central problem of life, because there are no other pressures beyond buying back your time. As it turns out, money can’t buy happiness, but it can purchase the space to focus. 

This is why the most important productivity hack you can have is money. It’s the cash that covers dinner on the nights you have to work late; it’s autopay on bills because you never have to think about an overdraft. It’s using your credit card on groceries for the points, rather than because you are stretching the space between paychecks. It’s the repair you can afford to make so it doesn’t worry your mind, and it’s the checkup you schedule for the ache that came out of nowhere, because your insurance is taken everywhere and the out-of-pocket specialist copay is merely a nuisance.

All of this might have stayed invisible but for the pandemic, which has exposed the paradox that fuels our economy: The work that creates the most value is offered the least. The people whose work clears the trash and repairs the roads and rails, whose labor gets food to our tables and clean water through our faucets get little for their efforts, thrown away as if their lives were worth nothing. The managerial work of planning, coordinating, “disrupting,” and oversight can’t be done without the basics of life being met, and yet the workers who make it possible have been subjected to the most dire circumstances of both the disease still spreading throughout our society and the so-called recovery that has had basic needs reach luxury prices. But slowing down the economy to care for people first would have been too inconvenient, we were told.

As it has sped right back up with the same lack of consideration, those sloppy economic architects are surprised that the exploitation of our time is being met with resistance. Intellectual workers don’t want to return to offices filled with forced camaraderie and dead space that they’ve learned to fill with household tasks and time with their families. Hospitality workers aren’t eager to perform the simpering service expected of them without a significant improvement in compensation. Teachers, perpetually overburdened, have retired or switched careers to such a degree that many public school systems are dangerously understaffed. We have decided collectively that we will not work for lives we cannot live.

So we are giving just enough for bosses who know that we can find other options. We are changing fields and striking out on our own. We are asking for benefits that actually benefit us, like three-day weekends and guaranteed sick leave and recognition that we are not machines. Having lost our marginal minutes to commutes of snarled traffic or under-equipped transit systems, meaningless small talk with micromanaging superiors, or the overbearing weight of everyone else’s convenience, we are now seizing the moment.

Work has taken up space in our lives that it did not earn, and we are striving to push it back into its place. And it strikes me that we are not asking for as much as has been taken from us. We are not asking for an end to convenience; we are requesting our part in it. We want enough employees at a high enough wage to stop holding service hostage with tips; we want time between shifts that allow us to reset and revive; we want an extra day to tackle chores and make our leisure time meaningful. Maybe when life runs a little bit slower, I’ll have the time to teach Jeff how to load the washing machine in case his team needs the day off.

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