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Praising Hard Work Covers Up Structural Inequities

Toxic productivity wasn’t supposed to be a thing. In the 1930s, one man predicted that the 21st-century workweek would be just 15 hours. Thanks to technological advances and increased productivity, we’d have a comfortable standard of living with everyone spending two days a week at work. Life for the other five days would be the standard weekend. 

This wasn’t the dream of some utopian socialist. It was the prediction of John Maynard Keynes, perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th century (Truthout). In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee projected that advancing productivity would lead to a 14-hour workweek by the year 2000. The Wall Street Journal seconded this theory two years later (Business Insider). 

Part of this prediction turned out to be true. Labor productivity has more than doubled since the 1970s. Today, the average worker produces more than twice as much as they did before (CUNY). But working people haven’t reaped the benefits, and the workweek hasn’t shrunk. Instead, the typical full-time worker works 47 hours a week, with one in five working 60 hours a week or more (Gallup). And the real average wage is lower today than it was at the beginning of 1974 (Pew). 

TAKE ACTION

• Oppose tying social benefits to conditions like work restrictions.

• Support local labor union campaigns.

• Consider: What judgments do you make about the people in your day-to-day life because of their occupations? How would you treat a professor in a university class? How about the custodian who cleans the classroom afterward? What privileges and constraints informed the kinds of jobs accessible to you, your parents, and other people you know?

The ideology of the constant hustle has replaced the dream of the two-day workweek. We’re working longer weeks, finding more precarious and unstable forms of employment (World Economic Forum), and facing pressure to constantly brand and monetize ourselves even when off the clock (Fast Company). As work expands from the workplace to an entire “social factory” of self-marketing and side gigs, it makes sense that we’d develop a culture celebrating an obsessive work ethic and toxic productivity above all else (New Inquiry). 

Pride in working hard certainly isn’t a bad thing, but using job titles and “hard work” as a general measure of human worth is. People who work “high-skilled” jobs get more respect along with a higher salary than those “just flipping burgers.” The idea is that people who work “high-skilled” jobs have diligently devoted themselves to their careers while “low-skilled” workers are lazily contented with work anyone could do. These low-skilled jobs are, coincidentally, disproportionately held by people of color. And while they don’t pay living wages, they’re the positions most essential for the quality and sustenance of our lives. It’s low-wage, “low-skilled” workers who repair roads, collect trash, stock stores, and assemble the products within them.

This idea is absurd. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you already know that no matter how good someone is at writing Python code or researching historical manuscripts or writing articles about anti-racism, if you threw them into the dish pit alone during the Saturday night dinner rush, they would end their shift injured, crying, or dead. If you refer to other workers as “low-skilled,” consider if you’d be able to harvest bundles of radishes as efficiently as this farmworker does for hours each day. The fact that she’s considered “low-skilled” helps justify that she’s paid $0.03 for each. The work of poorly-compensated custodians and store clerks is far more urgent than the work of “highly-skilled” copywriters or middle managers (Strike!). But instead, our society shames low-waged workers, often admonishing them for settling for a meager occupation.

Basing human worth on job status is a dangerous and problematic idea.  Black people are unemployed at twice the rate of white people. It’s been like this for the last half-century because of structural racism, political decisions, and large-scale economic shifts (Economic Policy Institute, Mic, Business Insider). But since unemployment and underemployment are instead thought to result from character flaws, social services were cut so that unemployed Black mothers wouldn’t become “welfare queens.” Many people with disabilities can’t work, especially given the structural barriers to employment and transportation that lock them out of the workforce. Consequently, disabled people are accused of being “lazy” or faking their disabilities based on the idea that a person’s worth is tied to their “work ethic” and status  (Forbes). 

The degree to which you deserve food, shelter, recreation, and a dignified life should not be determined by your occupation. Life with dignity shouldn’t be contingent on your job title. Caring for children, organizing a neighborhood barbecue, checking up on family and friends — these things aren’t any less necessary for the sustenance of our social lives because they don’t come with a paycheck attached. If the 15-hour workweek had become a reality, they would be among the things we would all have more time to do. 

Instead, contemporary street protests are often confronted with the common retort, “Get a job!” The implication is that whatever you may do for a salary, no matter how inconsequential or banal, is more praiseworthy than fighting to make your community a better place. Instead, let’s embrace a world that sees us all worthy of joy, rest, and security, regardless of the type of work we have the capacity to do.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Cultivating an obsessive work ethic is seen as a sign of moral character.

• High-status jobs are seen as a result of hard work.

• Racism, sexism, and ableism impact the possibility and conditions of a person’s work. Life quality and survival shouldn’t depend on it.

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