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  1. Blog
  2. Working During Coronavirus

Perspective: In the COVID Era, Let’s Remember Why We Work

“Taking pride in what I do involves standing up for myself”

Women leaning against a wall
Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio

This article is part of InHerSight's Working During Coronavirus series. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, find helpful advice here on working remotely, job hunting remotely, dealing with anxiety and stress, and staying safe at work if you have to be on-site.

Do you feel that if you truly love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life? Is your job your passion? Is it hard to set work-life boundaries because you care so much about your career? Does your company call your team a “family”?

That’s how a lot of professionals aim to feel nowadays. People with high-status jobs like brand manager or curator, and even more and more low-wage workers in hospitality and retail, seek roles they’re deeply passionate about. In fact, one of the top three reasons 73 percent of women want to change careers is to find a career with a mission they believe in. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to love your job. But this line of thinking is very different from how people used to think about work, and it’s linked to the reduction of worker protections we’ve seen over the past few decades, says Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone

Jaffe says that over the past four decades, the ways people and their employers think about waged work has gone from something you do for money—in order to support yourself and your family—to something through which you can find enjoyment and fulfillment. 

“The backbone of the American economy was manufacturing jobs, and no one expected to love their manufacturing job—you went to the factory, you stood on an assembly line for 8–10 hours, you got paid decently,” Jaffe says.

“The decline of those jobs, with the rise of service sector jobs and professional work, has resulted in the spread of this idea that we should do our jobs out of fulfillment. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon for a lot of people.”

Is that a change for the better? It’s difficult to say. When you look at the numbers behind the evolution of work, for the majority of workers, fulfillment doesn’t always seem to be so fulfilling—at least not in terms of benefits and pay, which are the very reasons we work and, during the COVID era, are increasingly top of mind.

Since the 1970s, worker productivity has skyrocketed while wages for most have increased at a slow rate. Meanwhile, the top percent of earners have seen notable growth.

At the same time, union membership—a tool to set pay standards and worker protections—has decreased from about a third of the working population in 1965 to about 10 percent in 2019. In many industries, job security has also decreased, including during the pandemic in which about one third of workers who are still employed are concerned about losing their jobs or losing hours.

Read more: The Dream Job Isn’t a Myth, but It’s Not as Dreamy as It Appears

A Center for Economic Policy and Research report shows that “good jobs”—ones that pay at least $37,000 each year, with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan—are increasingly scarce. The report estimates the economy lost about a third of its ability to generate such “good jobs” between 1979 and 2012. This, Jaffe says, is largely connected to a growth in strategic efforts to prevent the formation and strength of unions.

And unfortunately in the U.S., a person’s ability to access health care and retirement—and even money to afford food, housing, and child care—is dependent on their ability to work, and even then they might not have the benefits and flexibility they need to protect their health.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, it’s important to remember that about a quarter of workers don’t have access to paid sick leave. So it’s concerning that overall, worker protections have decreased, and jobs are less and less able to meet people’s basic needs, especially in such a time of national crisis. 

“Remember that work is something we still do in order to survive because we don’t have a lot of other options,” Jaffe says. “At the end of the day, we want to have a job that is less miserable. If you can get a job you like, that’s great! But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a job.”

Plenty of people forego better pay or benefits for a low-paying job that they care a lot about and truly enjoy. For some, this is only possible because of family financial support. Ultimately, for the vast majority of Americans, a job is necessary to pay the bills. 

Read more: We’ve Always Asked for Too Much from Teachers, but Is Distance Learning the Last Straw?

Jaffe says it’s because of passion for their profession that workers at a variety of creative and care-based industries—industries that tend to have meager benefits packages—are organizing to improve working conditions at their workplaces. Workplace improvements will improve life outside work.

“Making it better means actually being able to pay your rent, being able to go home at a reasonable hour, and being able to spend time with your friends and family that are not punctuated by you checking your phone every five minutes to make sure your boss isn’t emailing,” she says.

Teaching is one type of job that people (historically, most often women) do out of passion for the work. (The history of how gender relates to unpaid and underpaid work that is done out of love is another, fascinating, conversation.) In 2018, unionized teachers across the nation went on strike, with demands including better pay and smaller classrooms. This summer, teachers unions have been instrumental in fighting for and securing protections for students and teachers at schools beginning classes during the pandemic this fall.

“Overwhelmingly, teachers I know love and care so deeply for their work. But they’ve shown us that doesn’t mean that you must live in debased conditions—in fact it means the opposite,” says Miya Tokumitsu, the author of Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness.

“They’re saying ‘taking pride in what I do involves standing up for myself, my colleagues, students, and the profession,’” Tokumitsu adds.

Read more: What I Learned to Advocating for Myself in the Workplace

Increasingly workers at art museums are unionizing as well. In August, staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join a union after months of complaints of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. 

“This happened because of getting together and talking about their working conditions. It’s starting internally with some conversations people are having with each other,” says Tokumitsu, who currently works as a curator at Wesleyan University.

While personal happiness and individual success should be appreciated and celebrated, Jaffe thinks there are other crucial questions about work that you should ask yourself. These are generations-old questions about the conditions of work that involve thinking beyond your own personal experience and understanding yourself and your coworkers in relation to your bosses. 

“How much power should working people have on the job?,” Jaffe says. “The questions are political questions.”

While loving your job can bring a valuable sense of fulfillment, do not let your personal satisfaction keep you from asking the questions directly related to why we all work. What benefits are available? Are they available to everyone? Who is getting paid what and is that fair? Are workers’ lives, health, families, and boundaries being respected across the board?

Take a step back, talk to your colleagues, look around. If you care about your job, you should care about how people are treated. Yourself included.

About our sources

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.

Miya Tokumitsu is curator at Wesleyan University and the author of Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness.

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