The Perils of Modern Work and How to Reclaim Love and Leisure

If you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, or so they say. Even under the best of circumstances, loving something (or someone) doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. Those who are lucky enough to land their dream job usually discover important aspects that they don’t like. But if you’re lucky and love your job (like me), you’ll likely find meaning, purpose, and joy in your work that will help you balance when it’s tough. Unlike our parents or grandparents, who viewed work as an honorable way to support loved ones, modern professionals and job seekers expect to love their work. Budding professionals are urged to find their passion and budding entrepreneurs are encouraged to turn their hobby into a business. And as a coach, I spent fifteen years supporting my clients in this quest.

But what happens when the love of your work is used by employers to justify underpaying and overworking their employees? Sarah Jaffe explores this topic in Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Leaves Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. In this well-researched critical book of neoliberal capitalism, Jaffe documents the experiences of workers in various fields (many of them dominated by women and women of color), where love is part of the mythology. These workers are told that what they are doing is not really work (athletes and artists) or that they are lucky to be there (trainees). Some are told that they are part of the family (carers), or that their personal growth and satisfaction should be enough to compensate for a drop in salary (academics). Teachers and nurses are accused of being mercenaries if they demand higher pay or better conditions. Even nonprofits that claim to be progressive engage in union busting. As Jaffe says, work won’t love you back.

Work is also “greedy,” writes Claudia Goldin, a Harvard labor economist, in her rigorous analysis of five generations of working women, Career and Family: Women’s Century-long Journey to Equity. The best-paying jobs demand long, unpredictable hours and expect responsiveness beyond the traditional workday. As Goldin notes, when dual-career couples need to care for a child or another family member, they often opt to have one partner take on more flexible and less demanding work so they can fulfill their caring responsibilities while the other partner works. “greedy” work. This strategy maximizes income – an economically rational choice – but leads to an inequitable distribution of labor and rewards.

The result?

  • A workforce with high rates of burnout and stress. A recent Deloitte survey of 1,000 professionals found that while 84% said they were passionate about their work, 71% had experienced burnout and 64% had high levels of stress. Passion does not insulate you from burnout.
  • A lifetime wage gap for women, who are overrepresented in the ranks of underpaid “love” jobs and who, in heterosexual couples, more often opt for the lowest paid and more flexible job to be able to be carers. home caregiver, despite their hundred years of progress in the workplace.

Goldin’s and Jaffe’s books (both of which seem like labors of love, by the way) demonstrate how individual choices are constrained and manipulated by a system of rules and incentives that perpetuates inequality. Goldin, an economist, documents but offers no prescriptions, while journalist Jaffe’s final chapter points us towards a more communal system in which our love is not co-opted by capitalism and everyone has free time.

Perhaps the new wave of unionization signals an upcoming era of improved working conditions, and perhaps the current “big shakeup” signals more workers valuing themselves and their time. But as an executive coach who works primarily at the individual level within organizations, I ask myself: Short of quitting or community revolution, what are workers to do, especially those who find themselves trapped in greedy jobs or overwhelmed by jobs they love? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Establish regular working hours. Working from home makes setting boundaries and boundaries more difficult, but all the more important. Even if your job requires occasional long hours, make it a habit to work outside your regular hours. Don’t work weekends (which exist because of the labor movement).
  2. Ask for help. Alongside the myth of the “labor of love”, there is the myth of the hero who saves the day. Too often, an underfunded team or poor project planning means individuals feel the need to make a heroic effort to save the day. But as long as workers sacrifice their health and personal lives to meet unreasonable demands, the system is unlikely to change. Push back unrealistic deadlines and advocate for resources.
  3. Know your North Star. Ground yourself in your core values. Identify what you most want to cultivate in your life and guide your decisions accordingly, especially regarding where you invest your time, energy, and love.
  4. Develop a sense of sufficiency. Our consumerist and competitive culture is often geared towards making us want more and better rather than appreciating what we have. This desire to acquire more makes the greedy trade-off for a job seem like a rational choice, but is that what you want for your life? Stay away from social media, where the temptation to compare and judge is almost irresistible. Practice recognition.
  5. Cultivate leisure. Whether you like your job or not, find ways to do what you love outside of work. Take a walk in nature, watch the sunset, read for pleasure, try a hobby, play a game. you with an artist. It’s not just about building resilience; it’s about living a full life.
  6. Connect with the people you love. Work may not love you back, but people can. Put your love where it will be appreciated and returned. Take the time to connect with the people you care about and show care for the people you relate to.

There’s a line in the movie “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” where Janine Garafalo as veterinarian Dr. Abby Barnes responds to a radio caller asking for advice about a rash he developed after being licked by her cat for three hours. “OK, she said, it’s a good time to talk about limits. You may love your pets; but don’t love your pets. So if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, go out there and love your job. But follow Garafalo’s advice: limits.