Skip to content

Labor and Leisure

Two books that came off my holds list at the library in the last few months are making me think a lot about labor and leisure: Work Won’t Love You Back and Overwhelmed. Both these books were not quite what I expected, but gave me things to think about.


I would summarize Work Won’t Love You Back as a tour of various industries, how they all exploit their workers, and that yes, you need a union. Caretaking, art, technology … Sarah Jaffe, the author, says she could have included many industries, but that these were the ones that made it in.

In each chapter/industry, employers exploit workers, and workers find a way to use solidarity to better their situation. Sometimes through a union, or with organizing that sounds like it might lead to a union.

Jaffe is, surprising no one, a labor reporter. So, a book that’s “you should have a union!” isn’t a shocker there. What surprises me is that it made me think about the business owner (the capital to labor vs. capital). It made me think about what I’d need to think about when I start a business.

I’m a little hard on myself for having these thoughts. “Oh, poor business owners” – but … I haven’t had to run a balance sheet and figure out if I have enough to make payroll for the staff. Now, that empathy is likely probably not warranted for the millionaire executives trying to squeeze more out of labor, but it’s a thought I have nonetheless.

The other thoughts I have are: a desire to work at a tech company again, but in a union workplace; or wow, organizing seems like really interesting and rewarding work.


Meanwhile, Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte appears as if it will discuss time-use studies and the modern age of busy-ness in the face of peak productivity

But really it’s about how it’s difficult to be a parent in the modern age. I was a bit more interested in if we could figure out how to help with the overwhelm situation for everyone! A warning that the book is heavily based in the gender binary and heterosexual couples (“women vs men” comparisons incoming for that reason).

In time-use studies, prominent researchers counted things like “waiting” as leisure time. Comparing men and women’s leisure time, men have more long stretches of leisure time. Meanwhile, women have leisure time (supposedly) but it’ll be a few minutes here and there. Which I personally wouldn’t count as leisure time.

Schulte interweaves personal stories of her experience as an overwhelmed mother with research. This keeps the book engaging but also limits the books appeal more broadly because it centers so much on parenthood.

The book discusses parental support and how much (American society in particular) burdens parents rather than supporting those who are helping populate our society. Schulte is absolutely correct, but I think it distracts that the pace of the world is overwhelming even if you aren’t also trying to juggle parental responsibilities.

The author describes the “ideal worker” archetype. She never gets sick, doesn’t take leave… and gets her value and often her identity from work. I would’ve liked more in this as far as how to break this down. At one point the book discusses how busy-ness is nearly contagious – the guilt about “not being busy enough” as a social contagion. That I wanted more of.

Labor vs. Leisure

I put my thoughts on these two books in one post because I keep thinking about them together. Work Won’t Love You Back in regards to what is work, and Overwhelmed in regards to how do I spend my time

Labor for compensation is a particular reality of the world we live in, and there’s this pressure to use our time to fill it with this compensated labor.  By “pressure” I am both referring to the “gotta pay my rent” reality, as well as the need to “work” even if … you don’t need the money. Or as much money as one is getting from the labor.

One of my favorite slogans mentioned in Overwhelmed is “work less, work all.” She attributes it to Kurzarbeit, but that appears to be a flavor of German unemployment (ex. the state fills in a wage gap when work hours drop), and I can’t find the German for this slogan!

Researching “work less, work all”, it’s mentioned as a union rallying cry, but apparently more in Europe than the US.

French and German unions in particular advocated work sharing (reducing hours to keep more workers) with this slogan. And a paper from 2005 suggests that this labor organizing is one of the chief reasons work hours are much more reasonable in Europe than the US.

Why can’t more programming (or many white-collar) jobs be split into two (or more!) so there’s less work for folks, and thus more work for all?

What if a tech union protected jobs in a layoff by reducing wages and hours (with commitments from management as well), and thus maintaining a higher number of workers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.