Your job will never love you: Stress and anxiety in our frightening new job world

The economy has become so insecure that the very workers who should be wary of employers feel forced to defend them

Published July 26, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment"    (MGM)
Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment" (MGM)

Excerpted from "The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity"

Beth Mendel had had a successful career in design before she quit her job when her husband was relocated to Virginia from New York City, thinking that she would finally have a little time to be a stay-at-home mom with her four children. A tall woman with eyes crinkling in good humor behind horn-rimmed glasses, she sat across from me in a café, pulling her sweater more tightly around her as she narrated the move. They sold their apartment in the city, bought a house down south, and moved all four children into their new schools, with her parents joining them in the move, she recalled. But a few months later, the company called her husband back up north for an ominous meeting at headquarters; they fired him that day.

He had been assigned to Virginia to downsize the operations there, she remembered, but when that job was done, he was too. Her eyes widening in a can-you-believe-it sort of gentle parody of their shock, Beth invited me to picture the scene. “It was like, ‘We think you’re valuable enough to move you down to Virginia,’ and then, ‘Sorry, we got rid of the plant, and now you’re not valuable anymore.’ It was horrible,” she said, recalling that fluctuations in the housing market meant there was no way they could easily return to their old life in New York. “So imagine him, he was definitely the hatchet man,” she told me. “And then he was hatcheted.”

Beth quickly went back to work, and has not stopped in the eight years since, switching careers to become a human resources manager for several different firms over the next decade. Her husband initially succumbed to a depression, and she would come home to find the kitchen dirty and the kids telling her that another day had gone by with Daddy not getting up from the sofa. Slowly, painfully, he regained his equilibrium enough to work, eventually finding his niche again but at much lower pay, as do a quarter of those displaced workers who find new jobs.

In talking about work, it is not that Beth embraces the new insecurity, exactly. She calls what happened to their family “horrible,” and remembers the trauma: “Oh my gosh, it was awful.” But she also tries hard to move on, with little phrases of acceptance dotting her narrative like mental shrugs. “Yeah, but, you know, hindsight’s 20/20,” she said. “There’s always bumps in the road,” and “What are you going to do?” These little phrases serve to keep her expectations about work low, and contain the emotions she allows herself to feel, since job insecurity is just what we can all predict, simply part of the new economy.

On the other hand, Beth maintains high expectations of herself at work, as a core part of her identity. “Well, I’m a—myself, I’m a very loyal employee. I—when I accept a job, I’m—there’s, you know, it’s in my heart, it’s in my gut,” she said, describing situations in which she thought she probably should have left a company earlier than she did. “Yeah, I don’t just go to a job nine to five, and at five o’clock, oh, it’s time, goodbye. No, that’s not me.” Beth identifies with the employer’s needs, even in an environment in which she knows, through bitter personal experience, that this sort of sentiment is unlikely to be reciprocated.

What do employers owe us, and what do we owe our employers? The question goes to the heart of what we think counts as honorable behavior, of our sense of what we can control, and of what we perceive as the place of ethics in paid labor. Contemporary transformations of work have included the erosion of the old social contract, in which employers promised some sort of job security in return for workers’ loyalty and effort. While that bargain was limited in time and its beneficiaries, increases in actual and perceived job insecurity suggest that for many employers, this set of obligations no longer applies. Yet, at the same time, full-time work continues to be a central component of identity for many, and for some populations— women, young adults—its importance has even increased. These opposing trends—the increases in actual and perceived job insecurity, which we might predict would promote less work attachment—and the increased intensity and cultural importance of full-time employment, which we might predict would promote more work attachment—generate a cultural and emotional collision in people’s lives.

With her opposing stances toward work—where she shrugs her shoulders about job insecurity but fervently avows her own dedication as a worker—Beth typifies a central paradox of our times. I call this lopsided calculus of obligation the “one-way honor system.” Of course, some employed in precarious work sounded a different note, in which they were careful to distinguish between their dedication to peak performance, which is one dimension of work commitment, and their intent to remain in a particular job over time; I discuss these high-performance, low-loyalty workers in greater detail in the next chapter. Furthermore, stably employed workers—those public school teachers, firefighters, people employed in small, longstanding family firms, and the like—maintained high expectations for their employers’ constancy, as well as their own.

Most of the rest, however, seemed to accept that insecurity prevails at work and, like Beth, excuse employers for “hatcheting,” even as they maintained high expectations for their own duty and dedication. Ultimately, the one-way honor system generates a set of very real enigmas: Why do people hold themselves to a different standard of loyalty than they expect of their employers? Given the widespread sense that employers have left the terms of the old social contract behind, why are employees still affirming their own dedication? Furthermore, how do people reconcile themselves emotionally to the uneven balance of obligation at work?

What we expect from employers

Most people in insecure work did not think employers owed their workforce very much at all, if anything. “I guess just respect and appreciation,” said Vicky, a white woman with a master’s degree and a household income of more than $500,000. “It would be nice to have job security, but I don’t know if that’s realistic.”

“I just think the employer is the superior, and they’re in control, they’re in charge. And if they decide to fire you, they can,” said Claudia, a married white saleswoman who recently had to declare bankruptcy. “Of course I could leave, but, I mean, I believe that . . . what’s the word, to be submissive to your employer, to obey their rules, I think we owe them—an employee owes their employer that. You know, when you’re working, you should be working.”

“I think they [employers] should definitely be grateful when they have a good employee,” said Lola, a Latina public school teacher who— unusually—survived a recent bout of layoffs, and talked like a precarious worker. Her tone implying that their responsibilities do not extend much further, Lola was the one whose phrase “And [their employees] are owed their paycheck and a certain amount of respect, I would say” we heard in the last chapter.

Here we are not talking about whether or not people are worried about losing their jobs, the standard measure of perceived job insecurity, but instead whether or not they should have to worry about losing their jobs. In essence, we are taking a measure of the good, of what counts as honorable in the definition of our obligations. Obligations can be tricky to decipher, because to some degree they only matter when they are tested, when circumstances are less than ideal. On some level, commitment and loyalty only become salient under stress: What does an employer owe to a highly valued employee who experiences some sort of home calamity? What about when the company is under stress or changes hands?

Phyllis, an African-American single mother recently laid off from a string of low-paying jobs, maintained that even good employees should not get special consideration from employers if they have a family situation or other emergency arise. “I think that employee needs to get a good, strong support system . . . outside of work. Keep it outside. Once you walk in that door, you’re in a different mode,” Phyllis said. “The employer owes absolutely nothing. And then once you get that into the relationship where you’re bringing it to the employer’s attention, it’s going to be all throughout your business. So no, no, leave it out.”

We might predict that those who are not particularly advantaged by the insecure economy—those at the bottom of the skill hierarchy, who would benefit from a system offering protection from the capricious forces of the job market—would be more likely to argue that employers owed some sort of loyalty, security, or dedication to their employees if those workers were experiencing a momentary emergency. Surely this more vulnerable population would feel more sympathy for the employee’s need for accommodation, than for the employer’s need for performance? Yet even most of those with low-skilled or lower-paying jobs seemed to put themselves in the employer’s shoes.

Fiona, who spent more than a decade as a single mother, had held the most jobs of those to whom I spoke (she stopped listing at eleven); several of those job changes had been involuntary. Even valuable employees need to keep up their productivity, she said. “I don’t think an employer owes an employee [who’s] not doing their job well anything.”

What we expect from employees

If employers owe little beyond respect, dignity, and pay, what do employees owe? According to most—even the stably employed—workers must give their all. Three-quarters of the people I spoke to talked about themselves as “workaholics,” “passionate,” with a “really overdrive work ethic.” Sometimes it felt like there was an ongoing arms race in the percentages people assigned to their own effort, with tales of giving “100 percent,” “110 percent,” “150 percent,” or even “200 percent” on the job. “When I work at a job, I work it as if it’s my own company,” said Nicki, an African-American woman with extensive caregiving obligations who had been laid off. “Their best interest is my best interest. Doing the best that I can to make sure that that company survives.” “My father, you know, ‘Work first, play second’ is how I was raised,” said Marin, who works for her husband’s company. “And [if] you’re due at work at eight, you’d better be there by 7:45, because if you’re not there by 7:45, you may as well not show up. So work has always been very important to me.” Marin’s words capture an aspect that is widely shared here—her relationship to work is personal, as a reflection of her character, of her identity, much as Beth attested.

Like many Americans, most people laid claim to intense work commitment as a core part of being an honorable person. This was true even though the bulk of those with whom I spoke were women with children, some of whom had secondary jobs that provided a fraction of their household income, and a few had been stay-at-home mothers with more intermittent work experience. Women’s paid work commitment has always been suspect, because their presumed dual commitment to childrearing meant they struggled with “competing devotions.” Nonetheless, researchers have not found significant gender differences in measures of job involvement. Survey researchers report, for example, that about the same percentage of women as men—70 percent of full-time working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers)—say they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the “lottery question” (and used by researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic). A strong work ethic was part of good character, part of being fully human, no matter your gender, people maintained.

Becca, a single mother who pulled her family out of abject poverty by working as a rescue-squad dispatcher, said that it didn’t matter to her what her kids chose to do, as long as they pursued it avidly.

I’m a workaholic. I give 150 percent. And I expect my kids to too. My kids know you don’t call in sick unless you are in the hospital or throwing up. That job is your livelihood. That’s the line between having a home and not having a home. And they know what it was like to be right there where we didn’t have a home. And I think because of that my kids are stronger, they have a stronger work ethic. I have a stronger work ethic. I told my kids and I’ll tell anybody, I don’t care what you do with your life as far as what you choose to be. If you want to muck out stables for the rest of your life, fine. As long as you do your best, I’ll be proud.

Becca implies that only the work ethic is the source of human dignity, not the job. Those who did not demonstrate an overweening commitment to work were moral transgressors who deserved some contempt, as we hear from Juliet, a teacher whose son had joined a band and dashed her hopes that he would go to college. She debated whether or not to continue supporting him, because she did not want to subsidize a lifestyle she did not value. “I would [support him]. I would if I saw a really strong work ethic towards it,” Juliet asserted. Instead, “All I see is, ‘We’re playing a gig’ or ‘[We’re] playing video games.’ I just don’t see a strong work ethic, and I cannot stand individuals who don’t have a strong work ethic. That just really gets in my craw.”

The glue of work attachment

One might think that the pervasive sense of increasing job insecurity— and its resigned acceptance by precarious workers—would give rise to increased detachment from work, as people adjust to a new employment bargain. When one party in an exchange is seen as withdrawing its commitment, surely it is a rational response for the other party to pull back as well. Furthermore, concerns about losing worker dedication might then in turn act as a counterweight to these trends, discouraging employers from retreating from commitments to their workforce. Employers, as well as scholars, are scrutinizing this drama closely, their interest animated by the question: When will workers perceive that the vaunted social contract has changed, and employers no longer feel obligated to them? It is as if both sides are on a see-saw, watching to see if the other one is going to get up and leave. In this vein, the business press has an annual ritual bemoaning workers’ decreasing loyalty, reporting how many workers plan on looking for a job in the next year, for example (one widely distributed report claimed 84 percent of those who took an online survey had such plans; a more carefully conducted national survey concluded that 21 percent did).

Yet a fuller picture actually belies this account, and instead of a predictable economic tango, one of the partners in this dance has made some perhaps unanticipated moves: workers have responded to perceived job insecurity by working harder and longer. American workers of every racialized group, gender, and wage level have increased their work hours since the late 1970s. Even with a postrecession dip, the United States logs higher average annual hours worked than the OECD average, with Americans working four more weeks than the British, nine more weeks than the French, and eleven more weeks than the Germans, although as recently as the late 1970s, American and European work hours were about the same. As Arlie Hochschild documented, people face a “time bind” in which they acquiesce to ever-increasing demands of work and find themselves squeezing their nonwork lives into ever-smaller increments.

These trends are particularly true for more advantaged workers. One 2009 study found that 70 percent of US employees work beyond scheduled time and on weekends; more than half of these, along with 62 percent of middle-management employees, cited “self-imposed pressure” as the reason. Contrary to overly confident predictions such as “the four-hour workweek,” work hours have increased so dramatically for college-educated men in the United States that a longstanding relationship between wages and hours has reversed, so that by 2002, the richer you were, the more likely you were to work long hours, instead of the opposite: the best-paid 20 percent are twice as likely to work long hours as the lowest-paid 20 percent, economists report. Furthermore, these trends go hand in hand with perceptions of insecurity, since the more advantaged you are, the more likely you are to consider that employer commitment has eroded, surveys suggest.

To be sure, some of this behavior is driven by fear—if you perceive you are more likely to lose your job, you may work harder to make the employer want to keep you. At the same time, however, Americans do not just work hard: like Beth, Marin, and Nicki, many also profess great attachment to their work, identifying with employers’ needs and perspectives and reserving admiration for busy people who work hard. American veneration of work is a longstanding cultural theme, remarked upon by such disparate observers as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Max Weber. In essence, given two possible responses to increased job insecurity—less work attachment, as they mirror what they get from employers, or more work attachment, as they strive to be among the chosen few who get to stay—American cultural heritage made choosing one of those paths much more likely.

In this vein, almost three-quarters of American workers say they are “willing to go beyond the requirements of my job to help my organization succeed,” and 64 percent say they have a “strong sense of commitment” to their organizations. A 2011 study found that 83 percent of US employees are satisfied with their job, with 41 percent reporting they are very satisfied. American workers are more committed to their work and their organizations than their counterparts in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and other countries, researchers have found. In the United States, what Mary Blair-Loy has called the cultural logic of “work devotion” is a principled stance, one that maps onto political discourse and acts as a form of “moral capital.” The moral valence of work identification is so strong that it undergirds the polling patterns of some low-income people, who vote against policies that might help them survive their own bouts of unemployment, because they do not want to support a mythical population that “does not want to work.”

Furthermore, there are some indications that the symbolic importance of full-time work is rising, at least for some populations, as other markers of identity lose their widespread consensus as meaningful signs. Young adults face a changing set of milestones for what constitutes adulthood, for example; while marriage and childbearing has receded in importance as evidence of maturity, the full-time job has expanded as a crucial identity maker, a moment when people know they are adults. The presence and importance of paid work has also expanded in women’s lives, not only in their increased labor force participation but also in the decline of marriage rates and thus men’s support for their unpaid caring labor. The fervent avowals of Nicki, Marin, and Becca thus mimic a larger trend in the United States, one that constrains workers’ available responses to job insecurity, inhibiting their capacity to walk away from the insecure workplace: the cultural dominance of work as moral proof.

Excerpted from "The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity" by Allison J. Pugh. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Allison J. Pugh. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Allison J. Pugh

Allison J. Pugh is associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia

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