What’s Wrong with the Way We Work


In stepped heritage tourism and the hobby industry. Crafts, in an age of mass-produced consumer goods, became collectibles. Curators began collecting Americana, hand-forged tools, and hand-stitched gowns. During the Colonial Revival, industrialists built museums to hold the remains of the age of the artisan. In the nineteen-thirties, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibit called “American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America: 1750-1900”; John D. Rockefeller funded the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, in Williamsburg, Virginia; Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan. “It was a strange sensation to pass old wagons while walking with one who had rendered them obsolete,” a New York Times reporter who toured Greenfield with Ford wrote. Another Times writer noted, “The unparalleled Dearborn collection of spinning wheels, Dutch ovens, covered bridges and other relics of an early American past is the work of a man whose life mission has been to take us away from that past as quickly as might be.”

The do-it-yourself movement, a craft craze, took off in the nineteen-fifties. In the new, postwar suburbs, white middle-class suburban men built workshops, places where, after a long day at the office or the factory, they could make things by hand. “Millions have taken to heart Thoreau’s example,” one commentator wrote, “withdrawing to their basement and garage workshops to find there a temporary Walden.” C. Wright Mills, the famed author of the 1951 classic “White Collar,” a study of the alienation and boredom of the office worker, bought a Shopsmith, a woodworking machine, for his workshop. Theodor Adorno, meanwhile, boasted that he had no hobbies, and bemoaned the “hobby ideology” as just another way that capitalism destroyed any possibility of free time.

The leisure that Keynes predicted never came. Average weekly hours for wage workers fell from 1930 to 1970, but, in recent decades, a lot of workers have been scrambling for more. Why? Put another way: Who killed Maria Fernandes?

The problem with the argument that it’s stupid to look for meaning in work—a form of false consciousness to find purpose in your job—and rare to love what you do is that it’s wrong. All sorts of people doing all kinds of work like the companionship they find in the workplace, the chance to get out of the house, the feeling of doing something, the sense of accomplishment. In 1974, Studs Terkel published “Working,” a compilation of more than a hundred and thirty interviews with Americans talking about what they do all day, and what they think about it. It was a study, he explained, of Americans’ search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Terkel loved his job as a radio broadcaster. He thought of himself as an artisan. “It is, for better or worse, in my hands,” he wrote. “I’d like to believe I’m the old-time cobbler, making the whole shoe.” He interviewed everyone from telephone operators to spot welders. He found plenty of people who hated their jobs. “It don’t stop,” an assembly-line welder at a Ford plant told him. “It just goes and goes and goes. I bet there’s men who have lived and died out there, never seen the end of that line. And they never will—because it’s endless. It’s like a serpent. It’s just all body, no tail.” But most of the people Terkel talked to also took a whole lot of pride in their work. “Masonry is older than carpentry, which goes clear back to Bible times,” a stonemason told him. “Stone is the oldest and best building material that ever was.” A hotel switchboard operator said, “You cannot have a business and have a bad switchboard operator. We are the hub of that hotel.” A twenty-six-year-old stewardess told Terkel, “The first two months I started flying I had already been to London, Paris, and Rome. And me from Broken Bow, Nebraska.”

Plenty of people still feel that way about their jobs. But Terkel’s interviews, conducted in the early seventies, captured the end of an era. Key labor-movement achievements—eight hours a day, often with health care and a pension—unravelled. The idea of the family wage began to collapse, as Kirsten Swinth points out in “Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family” (Harvard). Income inequality had just begun to rise. In places like the United States and the United Kingdom, manufacturing was dying, and so were unions. When Richard Donkin started writing for the Financial Times, in 1987, six reporters were assigned to a section of the paper that chronicled the goings on in the labor movement: strikes, stoppages, union negotiations, pay deals, labor legislation. By 2001, when Donkin published his history of work, “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” the labor pages had gone, “because labor, as we knew it,” he writes, “no longer exists.” Donkin, who was born in 1957, had witnessed the dwindling power of unions, and mourned the end of the separation of work from home. “Once we may have left our work behind,” he writes. “Today we take it with us. . . . Our working life is woven, warp across weft, into the texture of our domestic existence.”

Cartoon by Jacob Breckenridge

That’s not the full story. The industrial-era division between home and work was always an artifice, one the women’s movement tried to expose. In 1968, in “The Politics of Housework,” the radical feminist Pat Mainardi issued an eviscerating indictment of men whose home life was taken care of by women. “One hour a day is a low estimate of the amount of time one has to spend ‘keeping’ oneself,” she wrote. “By foisting this off on others, man gains seven hours a week—one working day more to play with his mind and not his human needs.” More women joined the paid labor force. Men balked at joining the unpaid labor force, at home. “It is as if the 60 to 80 hour work week she puts in . . . were imaginary,” a Boston feminist observed. To protest, women proposed a labor action. “Oppressed Women: Don’t Cook Dinner Tonight!” read one sign at the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. “Housewives Are Unpaid Slave Laborers! Tell Him What to Do with the Broom!” Ms. offered, by way of illustration, a sample letter of resignation:

This is to inform you that I am no longer running this household. The cupboards, the Lysol, the linoleum, the washer, the dryer, the marketing—they’re all yours. I HEREBY RESIGN. . . .

You can fend for yourselves. Best of luck.


Feminists urged economists to count housework as work, calculating, in 1976, that housework constituted forty-four per cent of the G.N.P. Groups that included the New York Wages for Housework Committee, Black Women for Wages for Housework, and Wages Due Lesbians fought a “wages for housework” campaign, calling the exploitation of women’s domestic labor an international crime.

They allied with welfare-rights activists, who, after all, were seeking wages for mothers and who, starting in 1967, as the National Welfare Rights Organization, also campaigned for a kind of basic income. “The greatest thing that a woman can do is to raise her own children, and our society should recognize it as a job,” the chair of the Milwaukee County Welfare Rights Organization argued in 1972. “A person should be paid an adequate income to do that.” What they did not do was support the Nixon Administration’s Family Assistance Plan, whose benefits they believed to be inadequate and whose work requirement they rejected. It never became law. Still, by 1976 wages for housework, a proposal born among radical feminists, had earned the support of one in four Americans.

Meanwhile, crafts became a commercial juggernaut—especially hobbies for women, the she-shed equivalent of the workbench in the garage. Michaels and Hobby Lobby, craft superstores, along with Martha Stewart’s books, peddling needlepoint, knitting, and pastry-making, boomed in the nineteen-eighties. Some women began to pay to do, as hobbies, what other women protested doing, as unpaid labor.

Another way to think about the key turning point of the nineteen-seventies is that activists sought collective-bargaining agreements for housework just when industrial union membership was plummeting. Outside of agriculture, more than one in three working Americans belonged to a union in the fifties. In 1983, one in five belonged to a union; by 2019, only one in ten did. Union membership declined; income inequality rose. To explain this, Suzman points to the “Great Decoupling” of the nineteen-eighties: wages and economic growth used to track each other. From about 1980, in the United States, the G.D.P. kept growing, even as real wages stagnated. To compensate, many Americans worked more hours, and took on extra jobs, especially in the service sector. (Currently, more than eighty per cent of U.S. employment is in the service sector.)

In the early nineteen-eighties, Dunkin’ Donuts launched one of the most iconic television ad campaigns in American history. A schlumpy guy named Fred the Baker drags himself out of bed in the middle of the night, puts on his Dunkin’ Donuts uniform muttering, “Time to make the doughnuts,” before shuffling, half-asleep, out the door, barely saying goodbye to his wife, who is still in curlers. In one ad, he’s so dog-tired that he falls asleep at a dinner party, his head dropping onto a plate of mashed potatoes. In another, he goes out his front door and then comes back through the same door, day after day, ragged and weary, muttering, “Made the doughnuts,” until, finally, he bumps into himself, at once coming home and going to work. This campaign proved so popular that Dunkin’ Donuts made more than a hundred different versions; these ads were on television, around the clock, from the year Maria Fernandes was born until the year she turned fifteen. In 1997, when the actor who played the baker finally retired from the role, “Saturday Night Live” ran a skit, featuring Jon Lovitz, looking back at just how long this ad campaign had lasted. “My character, Fred the Baker, well he’s sure seen America through some tough times,” he says. “The Gulf War, just another time to make the doughnuts. The Rodney King beating, time to make the doughnuts.”


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