Things are no less daunting for students. I teach in the California Bay Area. Unaffordable rent forces many of my students to spend hours commuting and parking when they come to class, only to turn around and drive to a job. Runaway debt burdens put pressure on students to finish faster and maximize the earning potential of their degrees. All of this paints a grim picture of higher ed, even before factoring in the long-term consequences of shrinking enrollments in the humanities and at the community colleges and regional campuses that serve working-class students.
The prospect of a college-educated proletariat struck fear in the heart of Ronald Reagan’s GOP, notes Sarah Jaffe in Work Won’t Love You Back. Perhaps he need not have worried. Today, when a night course is first on the home budget’s chopping block, the dream of liberal arts for the masses has never felt more distant. The idea of the “dream job,” meanwhile, has lost some of its romance.
Through case studies and interviews with workers in retail jobs, white-collar offices, and the creative industries, Jaffe’s book shows how work became our pastime and our albatross. The pursuit of a career drove the promise of middle-class identity in the United States, but as union membership continues to erode and the welfare state collapses under capitalist onslaught, the prospect of upward mobility through hard work has become a tough sell. Our jobs exploit and extend indefinitely our working day. For very few does it feel like “morning in America”: Reagan’s cock-a-doodle-doo slogan is as quaint as Horatio Alger.
Still, the churning discourse over the “Great Resignation” testifies to our perplexity and wonderment at the notion that most people hate their jobs. Jaffe’s book offers a guide to the impasse of the present, namely, that 47 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021 and yet few have much reason to feel better about the future of work, given the likely reduction of the COVID-era welfare state after the 2022 midterms and the lapse of debt moratoria this summer. Contrary to the hyperbole of “bloodbath” and “revolution,” most of the Great Resigners were taking overdue, urgent flight from hazardous conditions for better, safer ways of making money. For many, this kind of resignation is business as usual. When I worked as a labor organizer in the hospitality industry, I learned that most folks, even with a union contract, had second and sometimes third gigs. Quitting is a functional way for wage workers to find other ways of making ends meet and protecting themselves from bad bosses. By improving standards, unions allow people to stay in some jobs longer.
Beginning with its title, Work Won’t Love You Back comes as a reminder that people who work for a living never really stop unless they get sick, injured, die, or, what is less and less the case, retire. Punning on the labor of love, Jaffe considers its zombie afterlife in contemporary capitalism: the romance of hustle peddled by Indeed.com; the parables of devotion preached by Silicon Valley. The question of commitment lingers in our relationship to these jobs that don’t love us back. Should we break up? Should we recommit?
Now I work as an adjunct. I’m among the 80 to 90 percent of PhDs without tenure-track professorships. Teaching in the Cal State system, I’m part of a union that secures good benefits. Even if I taught four courses a semester, plus a course over the summer, I would make about $50,000 annually, less than half of a down payment on a house in the neighborhood of San Jose where I live. The Modern Language Association recommends a minimum $11,500 per course, roughly twice the market rate. The MLA issued this recommendation after the desolation of 2020, when English Departments listed three percent fewer tenure-track jobs, bringing the total decrease since 2008 to 60 percent. In what reality does the MLA expect adjunct pay to double? Not one in which labor is fighting tooth and nail just to regain some of its lost bargaining power.
To the outside observer, academics are a confounding case. Why spend years earning a graduate degree whose professional paths forward are so few and narrow? Like Odysseus strapped to the mast, academics seek enlightenment in the siren’s call of that ultimate labor of love, the vocation, while drifting toward the rocks of precarity. At a place like Yale, where I went to graduate school, the myth of vocation is especially bewitching, and when it comes to labor, especially noxious. Graduate students striking in the mid-1990s and early 2000s were the “rabble,” according to one bit of apocrypha that got passed around. In those days, established professors made it clear to junior and nonwhite colleagues that they should pick sides or be ostracized.
As conditions deteriorate, and the call of vocation grows harder to hear, academics have written more about work. The confessional strains of this literature belong to the subgenre of “quit lit,” which ranges from bitter anguish to wrenching grief. I would say quit lit should be shelved next to adjunct lit, but its market is coterie at best. Whereas failing at a career is an age-old theme, only so many pages can be turned with vicarious sympathy for someone quitting or deciding to quit. Miserable protagonists and narrators are fashionable, but there is no frisson of autofiction in quit lit. What happens instead is slow and wrenching and sad.
For this, Jaffe’s book is a tonic. Jaffe’s style is that of someone who spends time with working people: curious about their particular experiences doing a job, fluent in the historical causes of that job’s depredations of self-worth, but impatient with overly fine distinctions. Work sucks, as we used to say, and we should learn how to say it again. The sectoral logic of the book’s chapters, ranging from home-care nurses to software engineers, insists that collective action is key to the possibility of good enough work. Instead of wringing hands about the death of the academic idyll, for example, what if we focused more on the overlaps between academic and service work, its survival strategies as well as its traps?
In grad school, I listened to Jaffe’s Belabored podcast, hoping to steel myself for meetings with History and Poli Sci grad students about the union we were organizing. Coming from the English Department, I was all theory and no practice. My second education came thanks to the nexus of teachers, researchers, and the clerical, custodial, technical and maintenance staff at Yale demanding experience-based pay, health care, and grievance procedures. A decade later, I feel some chagrin reading Jaffe canvass the American dystopia of work. Her chapter on academic labor might horrify readers outside the academy and come as sadly predictable to those inside, but in focusing on the common interests of the professor, the programmer, or the medical tech, Jaffe counters the worst takes on academia, which focus on the celebrity system at the top of the pyramid and the red herring of free speech.
Quitting makes for a catchy headline, but it’s a last resort. Instead of “resignation,” Kevin McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar propose “disengagement” as a better description of emotional and practical withdrawal they see in faculty who are exhausted by the demand to show up, by “the institution itself.” Students are in the same boat. But wish as we might, the Bartleby-esque position of “faculty members refusing,” as McClure and Fryar write, “to go the extra mile” in the current climate of higher ed retrenchment is as likely to invite soft coercion as to “compel college leaders to reconsider whether their aspirations are feasible.” The institution should be subject to democratic governance. But like any other industry, accountability happens when a group of people exert pressure on executives to act differently. This is how refusal becomes collective power instead of individual isolation.
Returning to in-person instruction last fall, I found a classroom the size of a master bedroom, its 25 seats filled. Older faculty couldn’t risk it. In my shared office are the books of another instructor who hasn’t returned to campus since the pandemic began. Typically, adjuncts can’t afford not to take a gig. When the academic workforce shrinks, it is due to budget cuts, forced layoffs, and hiring freezes, not because of the lateral mobility of bookish nerds on the make.
Mercifully, quit lit is a short form. Disappointment and disaffection fuel self-discovery in memoir, but the reflexive turn in academic quit lit necessarily leads to banal questions of self-worth, not spiritual redemption. The stagflation economy of the 1970s saw the rise of quit lit as we know it. In our parallel present, some have realized that what is therapeutic may also now sell as self-help. Christopher Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide dispenses advice on how to pivot, transition, and retool. The book’s stepwise program means to disarm the academic reader of their studied self-sabotage techniques in favor of new habits of self-promotion: “Assume you can do anything,” goes Caterine’s refrain.
This is well and good, assuming you “can do anything.” Yet the lived experience of landing a job is shaped by factors of age, gender, race, inherited wealth, children, and debt — the same factors that drive some out of the academy and allow others to stay. The same problem lurks in McClure and Fryar’s account of disengagement: its premise raises the question of who can afford to disengage, which immediately deflates its explanatory power. The strategy of simply quitting the game has the practical appeal of switching jobs to one better paid, more secure, and with more defined hours and expectations, but also of relieving the quitter of everyday tortures and lifelong traumas. To leave academia, as Caterine paints it, is a pastoral act, a turn from self-criticism to self-care requiring clarity of purpose, honesty about life goals, and sound accounting.
Work’s rewards depend on the person, but the proliferating discourse on work risks overstating its affective or cognitive dimensions. Instead of doubling down on the notoriously individualistic ethos of academic labor, accounts like Jaffe’s offer a way to project personal stories into collective horizons. Work is “meaningful,” to use Caterine’s diagnostic term, when it absorbs without consuming us, when it turns what we give to beautiful or useful effect.
Academics scrap online about who’s in good faith and who’s blind to the circumstances of their position. Whatever you think of it as an arena for symbolic struggle, Twitter matters because it is increasingly there, a realm at least physically outside the workplace, that academics are most candid about their work. As fewer professors feel secure in their jobs, the line blurs between the existential purpose of vocation and the grind of work, and in turn, between the ideal of the university as a refuge for free thinking and the “censorial” Twittersphere. If your assumption is that professors spend their time plotting how best to police speech in the classroom instead of planning lessons that engage students on how to read texts closely and write effective prose, you haven’t spent much time outside the Ivory Tower. The real disagreement is about access to public goods, not brainwashing. Do we want to open its doors wider to society, or, for fear that we let in the vulgar air, do we not?
Academics take their work home and complain about it through social media, as most people do. In a time of work’s disenchantment, more of us find consolation, distraction, and fellowship in online communities. Of course, these networks won’t slow casualization or toxic boss behavior. But neither do they undermine peer review standards. Part of the academic labor struggle is creating workplaces where faculty have their voices heard.
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s quip that “the institution cannot love you” has circulated further and wider than any other message recently voiced by a public intellectual on the left. It locates a Black feminist critique of careerism that calls for alternative fantasies of futurity in the face of neoliberal management practices that decouple identity from power. The logic of personification in Cottom’s phrase, however, suggests the resigned register in which it’s usually taken up — as an affect rather than an act. It confirms how bad things are, and does so with memorable words, like a poem, or a tweet. Cottom recognizes that for most working people, no matter how resigned they feel, they can’t afford to quit. Not a rallying cry, “the institution cannot love you” is a refrain for those caught in the space between resignation and reconstruction, a meme for detourning love language in the hope of reconnecting those who fight the institution’s worst tendencies yet refuse to give it up as a source of money, health care, retirement, and, yes, education.
Straying into the grove of academe is the path of many who feel called to intellectual labor. Though it’s become almost impossibly hard to stay, academics are human beings after all, driven by desire and endlessly going back to where they started. They might just try to stick it out. Throwing up hands is one option. But if we consider the game a game worth winning, to stop strategizing isn’t really a move.
Lukas Moe is writing a book about American poets and their ambivalent radicalism.