Two Different Ways of Looking at Work

Working as self-care vs. working yourself to death.

Photo: Ian Brown

Thinking about work is exhausting; so is work itself. This week, two very different takes on the nature of work and why we do so emerged.

At The New Yorker, Friend of the Billfold Jia Tolentino takes on the gig economy and the “doublethink” embodied by companies like Fiverr, which offers “freelance services for the lean entrepreneur” — a tagline that seems intent on sowing confusion rather than clarity.

The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death

Similar to TaskRabbit, people with a need to be met can browse through Fiverr’s multitudinous options and select a worker to do that task, for the exceedingly low price of $5. Say you need someone to populate a blog with posts, for example, or to create a digital animation for a website for a new business you’re starting. There are thousands of people on Fiverr who will do these tasks for a very low price — a great deal for the entrepreneur but a pretty shitty one for the worker. Fiverr purports to highlight what Tolentino calls the “American obsession with self-reliance,” while ignoring the very plain fact that the reason people are working themselves to the bone is because it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find a job that pays a living wage.

This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation — or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars.

Here’s an ad for Fiverr that is much clearer about their intentions.

Tolentino’s consideration of working yourself to death via the gig economy’s unintentional celebration of that fact is interesting in contrast to a piece published in the New York Times, written by Anna North, who declares that work is her “self-care.”

Work Is My Self-Care

Like feminism, self-care has been co-opted by savvy marketers who realized that telling women to take care of themselves is an excellent way to sell face cream. Self-care’s roots, as North notes, are decidedly less capitalistic. The current trend in self-care pushes products and regimens and creams, promoting idleness and relaxation as the ultimate way to take care of oneself. Work, North argues, is her own form of self-care, citing rest cures prescribed to famous intellectual women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolfe driving them to madness. Traditionally, self-care for white women has been marked by a lack of work.

As a white woman, I’m suspicious of an idleness that’s historically been both reserved for us — nonwhite women have been far less likely to be able to avoid working — and forced upon us by men who dictated what our brains could handle.

Also, chilling out just doesn’t work for me the way work does. I’ve never found a relaxation technique that relaxed me. I like yoga, but when it’s time to lie still in corpse pose my brain always starts to spin. Give me too many empty hours and I’ll see, if not women in the wallpaper, then danger around every corner — bankruptcy in my computer and death in the fridge.

To work, for me, is to care for the self by putting the self aside.

She is quick to acknowledge that making this declaration — that work is her self-care — is a privilege in and of itself. She cites the fact that she was able to choose her career and also makes it clear that this is not the case for many people who are unable to find work or who do perform work that requires them to take care of others. For those who do a lot of that kind of work, focusing on the self instead of setting the self aside to do…more work, I guess, is probably fine.

Knowing all this, I want self-care through work to be a privilege women can ask for, and, if we are in a position to do so, advocate for on behalf of others. Some of the people who have cared for me the most in my life, who have helped me the most to care for myself, have been women who, at low moments for me, gave me exciting work to do and the time and space in which to do it.

What North seems to be grasping at here is the notion that work itself should be fulfilling, dragging the old chestnut about how we should all be so lucky to “do what we love” — a privilege in and of itself, because training the mind to think that work is anything other than a means to an end is difficult. Reaching that conclusion and then actually making it a reality for yourself is even harder and woefully out of reach for many.

The Privilege of Doing What You Love

Does North’s assertion that work is her own form of self-care come off as a bit of a brag? Yes, but I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, and her careful acknowledgement of her privilege throughout does just enough to offset that ickiness. I’m not entirely sure what she’s arguing for. Should we all love our jobs? Maybe. Should we all have jobs in the first place? Yes, one hundred percent.

Work, like almost everything else, is intensely personal. The “flow” that she describes — that feeling of being completely immersed in something for “its own sake” — can be achieved through work if you truly love what you’re doing. Flow is easier to achieve when you’re writing or knitting or walking down the street on a sunny day with a nice beverage and something pleasant in your headphones — less so when the activity you’re engaged in is tedious, backbreaking and monotonous to the point of tears.

Self-care, as a coworker said to me, is whatever makes you happy. Maybe it really is working — if you feel this way, then I am very, very happy for you. But, saying that women should have the “privilege” to ask for self-care through work assumes that it’s something that everyone wants. In a perfect world, everyone would have jobs that made them feel good inside and not merely okay; in that world, work would transition seamlessly to self-care, the moments blurred by the sheer enjoyment of it all. In that world, we might not even need self-care; everything would be beautiful and nothing would be bad. Sounds nice.

The fact is for lots of people, regardless of the work they end up doing, it is simply a means to an end. Make the spreadsheet, file the papers, send some emails and go home to do whatever it is that you want to do. The free time in-between the work — for sitting down, for watching TV, for doing 45 minutes on the elliptical while watching the Food Network — is often what we work for.

The gig economy argues for workers being constantly on the clock — there’s no time here for self-care, because every waking moment should be spent hustling, harder and harder, so you can pay your rent and your bills and eat. Conflating work with self-care demands the same kind of availability. Regardless if your job is “good”or not, the hustler mindset of the American work landscape sets an uneasy expectation that work should be the only thing in your life. It’s okay to want your work to be just work, no matter how much you love it.

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