By Dr. Kimberlee Josephson
In an Ezra Klein podcast episode Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back, blamed capitalism for our workplace woes. Throughout the interview, Jaffe sticks to a recurring theme, namely that “devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone.”
Depending on the task and the position at hand, some people may feel exhausted and alone. But for others, that is a welcomed and chosen experience. Using the term ‘exploited,’ however, is extreme when referring to organizations that provide opportunities to work, which we voluntarily apply for, compete for, and can leave on our own terms if we think we can do better elsewhere.
Perhaps a voluntary system doesn’t feel voluntary when opportunities are lacking, or the alternatives are unattractive. But no matter how terrible, something tends to be better than nothing. In The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli tracks the trajectory of the arduous apparel industry, and its contributions to the growth of the developing world, despite troubling work and employment practices. Likewise, Leslie Chang’s work Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China charts the growing pains of China’s economic expansion and finds that even the worst conditions will be opted for when the starting point is scarcity.
When relationships are exploitative and circumstances enable abuse, there is more to blame than just a job. As conveyed by economist George Reisman, the capitalist can reliably improve situations, not the reverse.
More often than not, a job is a means for making a living or furthering a skillset, rather than finding one’s passion or fulfilling a dream. If more young people listened to Mike Rowe on this point, we’d likely have more students eager to learn a trade rather than pursue debt-accruing degrees for supposedly higher callings.
Jaffe claims that employment has failed us when it comes to finding meaning and purpose in life. She portrays employment as a “scam,” and employers as inherently immoral. She also claims that we have been “tricked” in “buying into the tyranny of work,” which assumes, necessarily, that we are simpletons and lemmings.
Most people know that our lives are about more than just our job, and we’re aware that we are not going to love every day on the job no matter how good that job is.
Jaffe fails to acknowledge that rewards from work have grown dramatically over the past several decades. Some point to a slow rise in salaries, but compensation packages now include new forms of fringe benefits. Even with inflation making any bump in pay into more of a blip than a bonus, the focus should be on the exchange process between employees and employers.
Talent shortages and high turnover require employers to rethink roles or increase rewards. But when employment options are limited, or an individual’s talent is lacking, the worker must be the one to make himself more of an asset.
Organizations aim to maximize their returns just as much as employees seek to maximize their compensation, but preferences vary for both organizations and individuals. Some employees are content with earning less if it allows more flexibility in working hours or time off. Some may seek a sense of community or belonging and enjoy working with others, even when the task may be difficult. Others may desire to be challenged and opt to join a startup that may not be able to pay much at the start, but that can allow an employee to play various roles and offer an opportunity to grow with the firm.
Just as we want a say in what we consume, individuals also want a say in what we do, and produce. If an organization provides a means for us to exercise our talents, on terms we agree to, we should celebrate that, not condemn it.
Jaffe’s own publication is a testament to the benefits of capitalism. She wrote her book because she believed she had something worthwhile to offer, and the publishing firm believed they could receive a return on her book being marketed. Her book will sell in a market, according to the interests and the inclination of those who, unfortunately, agree with her stance.
Capitalism has allowed for the continuation of specialization and industry diversification, thereby resulting in greater job opportunities, exchange prospects, and mechanisms for value creation. We have so much more today than previous generations, and any discretionary income we can derive from the work that we perform allows us to pursue the activities that we are passionate about. When we work hard, we love life more.
So, it’s okay not to love what you do on the job. Just do your best, earn as much as you can, and love what you can do with your life.