What if paid work were no longer the centerpiece of American life?
Once upon a time, there were good jobs.
These jobs paid people enough money to live on, even enough to support a family. They provided health insurance so people could go to a doctor if they got sick. They even came with pensions so that once you’d worked for a certain number of years, you could actually stop working. You could rest.
But there was a problem.
These jobs weren’t for everyone. They were mostly for white men, and mostly in certain places, like a factory or an office. For everyone else, there were jobs that paid less, with fewer benefits — or no benefits at all. And over time, there were more and more bad jobs and fewer and fewer good jobs, and even the good jobs started getting less good, and everyone was very tired, and there was not enough money.
Then there was a plague.
While this little fable may oversimplify the history of work in America over the past century, it’s not that far off.
Since about the 1940s, Americans have been encouraged to look to their jobs for nearly all of life’s necessities: a living wage, health insurance, and retirement benefits, as well as intangibles like friendship, identity, and a sense of purpose. But these benefits were never universal, and they became less and less common as the years went by.
The pandemic has made matters even worse. Millions of front-line workers risked their lives doing jobs that often offered them little more than poverty-level wages in return. Even for those able to work in the relative safety of their homes, the pandemic often sapped whatever joy, camaraderie, or fulfillment jobs had once offered — 40 percent of workers in one 2020 survey, the majority of them working remotely, reported experiencing burnout during the pandemic. The problem was only compounded for parents and others who took on new caregiving responsibilities, with mothers especially dealing with high levels of exhaustion and depression.
But the pandemic has also been a turning point for many workers, leading them to reevaluate their jobs in the face of new dangers — or a realignment of priorities brought on by a once-in-a-lifetime public health disaster. Indeed, the pandemic has led to record numbers of people quitting their jobs — 4 million this April alone, a phenomenon so widespread it’s been called the Great Resignation. And it’s leading employers, policymakers, and society at large to rethink jobs and how they dominate our days.
“I think it’s changed everything, and I think it’s changed everything fundamentally,” James Livingston, a history professor at Rutgers University and the author of No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, told Vox.
We’ll (probably) always have work, but could the job as the centerpiece of American life be on the way out?
How jobs got bad
To understand the question, you have to know how the country got to where it is today. The story starts, to some degree, with a failure. Much of American labor law — as well as the social safety net, such as it is — stems from union organizing and progressive action at the federal level in the 1930s, culminating in the New Deal. At that time, many unions were pushing for a national system of pensions not dependent on jobs, as well as national health care, Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, told Vox. They did win Social Security, but with many people left out, such as agricultural and domestic workers, it wasn’t a full nationwide retirement system. And when it came to universal health care, they lost entirely.
So “the unions said, okay, we can’t get this on a national basis, which we think is the most equitable, rational, cheapest,” Lichtenstein said. “We’ll link it to the job.”
Job-linked benefits like health insurance rose during World War II, when inflation made employers reluctant to raise wages — so they added benefits instead. “Perks” like health care were also a way to keep workers happy so they wouldn’t leave.
Meanwhile, in 1938, the 40-hour workweek was enshrined in labor law, putting an end to six- and seven-day weeks for many workers and requiring employers to pay overtime for anything above 40 hours. For some, the American job became a one-stop shop where they could get many, if not all, their needs met — all on a (relatively) reasonable schedule.
But those jobs were never for all Americans. For example, as with Social Security, domestic and agricultural workers — who were disproportionately Black Americans and other people of color — were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act establishing the 40-hour workweek, among other New Deal programs. And whole categories of jobs never offered the kind of wages or benefits that workers in “good” jobs enjoyed.
Jobs in retail and hospitality, for example, were considered “women’s jobs” for “pin money,” Lichtenstein said. These jobs were low-paying and typically lacked benefits because employers assumed that workers’ husbands or fathers would provide for them.
But over the past 70 years or so, retail, hospitality, and other service jobs have proliferated while the manufacturing sector and others that once provided well-paid jobs with benefits have shrunk. That’s part of the reason American wages stagnated and more and more people had to go without health insurance (at least before the passage of the Affordable Care Act). “To a degree, the crisis today in work is because of this huge expansion of the service sector, which was not covered by the kind of regulations or unions or social norms that we once expected,” Lichtenstein said.
Other factors, too, combined to make jobs worse. Long hours became more common as more and more workers were declared exempt from the 40-hour standard. The rise of “just-in-time scheduling” made retail and other service work increasingly unpredictable, leaving workers unsure if they’d get enough hours to be able to pay rent, or be able to find child care during their ever-changing shifts. And some jobs themselves changed to become less pleasant. Retail, for example, “moved toward more customer self-service and away from the sort of skilled model of retail selling,” which meant less opportunity to interact with customers and hone sales techniques, and more of an emphasis on mechanically keeping people moving through a store, Peter Ikeler, a sociology professor at SUNY Old Westbury, told Vox in a June interview.
Overall, by 2020, the American job had fallen far, far from its midcentury ideal. Then the pandemic hit.
The pandemic broke jobs even further
As Covid-19 spread around the country, jobs became even more difficult for huge swaths of American workers. While some front-line workers, like doctors, are highly paid, many are the same service workers who have had to contend with low pay and a lack of benefits — including health insurance and paid sick leave — for years. As one worker put it in an interview with Vox last year, “I did not sign up for the military. I signed up for Walmart.”
Even for those able to work remotely, however, the pandemic has had an immense impact on work. With school buildings and day cares closed, millions of Americans were stuck trying to manage remote school while working at the same time — working moms spent an average of eight hours a day on child care last year, on top of six hours a day on work. And for parents and non-parents alike, remote work during the pandemic hasn’t been the same as taking a casual work-from-home day in the Before Time — it’s been a nonstop slog of trying to be productive from underneath the weight of crushing existential dread. As David Blustein, a professor of counseling psychology at Boston College, put it to Vox in June, “managing anxiety is time-consuming.”
And even some of the most high-profile jobs in America have become less fulfilling during the pandemic. Professional and Olympic athletes have talked about the difficulties of competing in isolation, without family, friends, or fans. “We’ve basically just gone from bubble to bubble to bubble, all around the world,” professional tennis player Jamie Murray told the Associated Press last year. It’s perhaps no surprise that sports stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have stepped back from certain events during the pandemic, a time that has taxed athletes’ mental health as well as everyone else’s.
The pandemic has called into question many Americans’ psychological and emotional relationships with their jobs. Work has long been a social outlet for Americans — we’re more likely to make new friends through our jobs than any other setting, including school, neighborhood, or through existing friendships, according to the Survey Center on American Life. But for remote workers, the pandemic put an end to coffee-room chitchat and elevator banter, making jobs that much more utilitarian (though it’s worth noting that for some Black workers and other people of color, working from home has also been a welcome break from office microaggressions).
Meanwhile, for many Americans, work isn’t just something they do — it’s part of who they are. The idea that “you don’t get something for nothing” — that we must work to earn the necessities of life — dates back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Livingston, the Rutgers historian, told Vox. And thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to Karl Marx have put forth various versions of the idea that “work gives meaning to life,” Lichtenstein said.
But the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw an even more extreme version of that idea, with college-educated people — those who, presumably, had more choices about their work — putting in longer and longer hours and ranking career more and more highly among their priorities in life. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls it “workism,” or “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”
That idea has taken a big hit during the pandemic, with many people questioning the outsize role work plays in their lives. “I realized I was sitting at my kitchen counter 10 hours a day feeling miserable,” Brett Williams, a lawyer who left his partner position for a less time-consuming job at a small firm, told the New York Times this spring. “I just thought: ‘What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.’”
Millions of Americans, from professional sectors like law and business to lower-paid retail work, have left their jobs in recent months, often seeking alternatives that are safer, lower-stress, or both. In some cases, the disruption of the pandemic, during which many people have been laid off or furloughed, may actually have provided the impetus for change. Those disruptions “gave breathing space for a lot of workers to rethink: ‘I have to go back to work. And now what should it be?’” Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at CUNY, told Vox earlier this year.
It’s not just individual workers. The pandemic has also shown a lot of employers and employees that big changes to the way we work are possible — whether that’s working from home or taking time off in the middle of the day to care for a child. Even if some of those changes aren’t necessarily ideal, the point is that a job doesn’t need to be a rigid, all-consuming grind that crowds out everything else in life.
The pandemic has laid bare that “organizations can still survive and do well if you accommodate, to a reasonable degree, the needs of your staff and your workforce,” Michelle Holder, an associate professor of economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Vox.
Making jobs better means giving workers more power
Essentially, the past year and a half has shown Americans that a lot of jobs are terrible and that they don’t have to be. So what now?
The answers vary. At a minimum, many say, it’s time to make jobs better. For Holder, that starts with wages. “The federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour is just incredibly inadequate, given the cost of living today,” she said. A family of three with a breadwinner making the federal minimum — also the minimum in 21 states — falls below the federal poverty line. “If you are working full time, you should not be considered officially poor in this country,” Holder said.
Efforts to raise the federal minimum wage have faced opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats, but it remains a critical step, Holder said. Meanwhile, unions and other workers’ rights groups continue to push for higher wages — Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), which works on behalf of low-wage restaurant workers, for example, advocates for a true living wage, which it puts at as much as $24 an hour in some places.
Beyond higher wages, better jobs would offer paid leave and health insurance as well as a safe working environment and flexibility in terms of when and where people work. That includes “a serious conversation about this rush back to the office,” Holder said, and whether having everyone in one place from 9 to 5 (or longer), five days a week, is really necessary.
Meanwhile, some are asking whether contemporary jobs really need to take up 40 hours of our week. A recent experiment with shorter workweeks in Iceland was a big success and generated headlines around the world, and American companies like Kickstarter are now trying out the idea.
Recent interest in shorter workweeks is part of a larger shift among millennials and younger workers toward “living our lives rather than making a living” and accumulating money and possessions, Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, told Vox. Younger workers today are more likely to prioritize “having more time to experience their lives rather than waking up my age on the deathbed and regretting that I hadn’t spent time with my granddaughter,” he said.
And beyond the way we spend our time, some are questioning whether so many aspects of American life need to be tied to our jobs. Universal health care and a universal retirement system, like what labor unions were pushing for back in the 1940s, would liberate Americans, to some degree, from the tyranny of our jobs. “If you have universal benefits, not linked to the job, that means that workers can take a look at the job on its own and make decisions,” Lichtenstein said.
That’s happened to some extent in the pandemic, with federal stimulus money making it a bit easier for unemployed workers to hold out for jobs with good pay and conditions. “The lousiest jobs are the ones that have been having trouble filling up,” Lichtenstein said.
But some experts have proposed bigger changes to decouple jobs from Americans’ most basic needs. A team at the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy has proposed a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 per adult and $4,500 per child, phasing out at the national median income. Giving people money is “the most direct and parsimonious way to eliminate poverty,” Darrick Hamilton, the director of the institute and one of the authors of the plan, told Vox.
The plan isn’t meant to put an end to jobs — it should actually be coupled, Hamilton said, with a federal job guarantee. People would still work; some research shows that providing people with a basic income actually increases employment. But they would have more power to demand fair conditions or to quit an abusive job and find a better one because they would have a basic safety net in place. The plan would give workers “authentic agency,” Hamilton said, something that’s lacking in a system where poverty leaves millions of Americans — disproportionately people of color and women — vulnerable to exploitation.
Such a plan, or any of a number of other approaches to severing our basic livelihoods from wage work, would surely face political opposition, as they would likely require significant tax increases. They would also require changing a fundamental American belief: that we should have to earn the basic necessities of life through our jobs.
However, some say the idea that we actually earn our income has already been exposed as a fraud — just look at the fact that the average CEO made almost 300 times the median worker salary last year, a gap that’s only growing. “If we can detach income from work — and that’s what’s happened in the labor market — why not just do that?” Livingston asked.
For now, it seems like a fairy tale — the idea that Americans could choose to work or not work based on their desire, rather than the threat of starvation. But maybe, in some ways, the pandemic has brought that fairy tale a little closer to reality.