It seems like everyone I know is in one of two situations. Either they are un(der)employed and trying to figure out how to get some hours/money to survive or they are working far too many hours and trying to figure out how to fit any kind of a life into a workday.
I used to work appallingly long hours. It started because I was severely underpaid and had little choice. But it continued because I had internalized the idea of a “hard worker” being a good thing. I succumbed to the expectation that people are supposed to fit their life around their work, rather than the other way around. I also wanted independence. Work seemed like a better route to independence than housewife, the only other option on offer.
There were some rewards for all that “hard work” and long hours. It might almost make you believe in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps nonsense. Of course, not everyone can do it. While I was getting raises and promotions for being “indispensable,” my coworker was struggling just to get to the office on time. She was a single mother who lived in a part of Liberty City where the buses, when they were working at all, only ran Monday through Friday during rush hour. Ostensibly my raises and promotion were a result of all those long hours. But the reality is that requiring long hours to “get ahead” is a way of privileging certain people without seeming to.
Even a forty hour week is too much. It worked o.k. for my father, when I was small. He was able to work full time, still have a social life, and participate in his community. But that is because he had a stay at home wife, a support staff in his office, a periodic housekeeper, and various babysitters for us kids. In other words, he had a cadre of women doing much of the work for him. Once his business was crushed by the big box stores, life changed. No more stay at home wife. No more support staff. The community participation stopped. He had a stroke and was never really able to work full time again.
So if you are feeling like you are somehow failing, if you think you need some self-help bullshit about how to manage your time better, you don’t. There is nothing wrong with you. The reason we have so many exhausted, sick people hanging by one last nerve is not that we are all inadequate. It is that the grind is killing us.
When I entered the nonprofit world things got even trickier. Suddenly, it isn’t that you are giving all your life hours to make an owner even richer. It is that you are dedicated to a cause. When the people you are ostensibly helping seem even worse off than you, how can you justify cutting them off?
Ironically, one of the first nonprofits I worked for was an organization in California that helped people who were caring for someone with a brain impairment. I worked long hours. I was tired, stressed, and cranky. I spent zero time trying to be a part of the community. I didn’t treat people the way they should be treated. While I was supposedly helping caregivers, I had a life which would not have allowed me to do any caregiving. So how was that really helping anyone?
What I have come to see is that the more we work at our jobs, the worse off we are as a society. Our work structure is designed to provide cover for continuing discrimination and inequality. It is designed to prevent us from being able to participate in the life of our communities. It relies on a cadre of women – disproportionately poor women of color – whose struggles are mostly invisible. It is exploitation that we are all complicit in, whether you hire someone to clean your house or are so busy that you need to rely on the poverty wage workers who make your fast food. I began to understand what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “crisis of care.”
Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point. This “crisis of care” should be understood structurally. By no means contingent or accidental, it is the expression, under current conditions, of a tendency to social-reproductive crisis that is inherent in capitalist society, but that takes an especially acute form in the present regime of financialized capitalism.
In short, Capitalism cares only about production and marginalizes the relationship building and care that our lives actually depend on. If our communities are falling apart, it is because the time we need to nurture the relationships that make communities strong is being stolen from us. I don’t see how we will resolve any other problem unless we can tackle this one.
Clearly, this is a systemic issue that will require collective action. But one of the first steps has to be reprogramming our own thinking and pushing back on the theft of our time and well-being.
It is not easy to break the cycle. It might even be a little terrifying. We have been programmed our whole lives to believe that one false move will land us on the streets. The reality is that some people really are in such a precarious position that they have little room to push. But that isn’t true for all of us. And the more collective hours we can recover, the more time we will have to do things to open space for the people who don’t have it now.
A good start is to push back against all the voices, including the ones in the back of our heads, which tell us to judge people for not being hard working enough. Push back when people start every conversation by asking what a person does for a living. Don’t work overtime if you can afford not to. Find ways to decrease your material needs or alternate ways to meet those needs. Refuse to get on emails outside of work hours. Take every minute of your vacation (if you are lucky enough to have it).
Thank people who actually take off when they are sick. Support paid sick days for everyone. Applaud publicly those who prioritize their family and community in actions and not just words. Call out anyone who criticizes people who actually have their priorities straight. Build a support system that makes risking your job a little less scary. Be there for others so that they can take risks too. Be the one who helps those trying to live without wage labor, not the Petty Crocker who resents anyone that isn’t working as much as they are.
When you have a moment of guilt or fear, think about how this system is designed to make it impossible to have a reasonable life. Think about all the people who could benefit from a drastic shift in culture and expectations. Ask why, if you leave work early or get on Facebook at your desk, employers say that you are stealing time. Yet it is totally accepted that an employer expects you to be on email 24/7, schedules meetings during lunch hour, or takes advantage of lax overtime exemption laws to make people work late for free. Get pissed. Remember that you aren’t just pushing back for yourself. Remember that time is not money, time is life. They are stealing your life.
No matter how you earn your living, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by abandoning your loved ones, community, and health to the organization. No person can work 40 hours a week or more, support their loved ones in the way they deserve, be an active member of a community, be aware of what is going on in the world, be conscious about the systems they support, take care of themselves, create beautiful things, and find time for the joy that makes life worth living. Too many of us are sacrificing all the most important things on the altar of work. We need to look at our lives differently. Or as Fraser puts it
“The idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”
You can (and should) read the whole interview here.