job lock and the debt plot

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Back in September, Nitya Rayapati wrote about a new trope of millennial literature: the health insurance plot.

The Health Insurance Plot is a cousin to the Marriage Plot, which refers to a story that concludes in a marriage. The Marriage Plot is still prevalent today, but in 19th-century England it was especially popular. All of Jane Austen’s novels, for example, end with weddings. At the time, marriage was essentially permanent and offered Austenian heroines domestic and financial security—a kind of happy ending.

Today this happy ending is instead achieved by acquiring a job, one with great health benefits. The Health Insurance Plot may have a deadline, as in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, in which the protagonist anxiously seeks a job with insurance before her 26th birthday. Or the plot can follow a character through her uneven access to health care and into how this uncertainty feels. 

“These novels aren’t stories about women with diseases,” Rayapati writes. “They’re stories about women who—much like their Austenian predecessors—are seeking security.”

This piece has rattled around in my brain for the last few months. It’s a component of the phenomenon known as “job lock”: when people stay in jobs they hate (or that mistreat or exploit them), keep working full-time even though they want/need to retire, or hesitate to start a new business because they have no other option, other than their current job, for adequate, affordable health insurance coverage, whether for themselves or their families.

When I started writing this piece, I couldn’t remember the specific term for the phenomenon. “What’s this called,” I asked my followers on Twitter. Some people immediately answered “job lock.” But far more answered with variations of “America,” “wage slavery,” “my life,” and “fucked.”

Job lock is most often associated with health insurance. But debt also keeps us in jobs — and situations, like marriages or abusive relationships — that suck. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, car debt, and student debt. Some of that debt, particularly mortages, are framed as “good” debt. And some of that debt is the result of poor decision making — not bad decisions, but decisions made because you’re actually poor, or terrified of seeming poor, because few things are positioned as more shameful in America than not being able to consume like a middle class person.

No matter the source of the debt, it yokes Americans to shitty jobs. The risk of switching employers, or going out on your own, is too great. As the pandemic has shown us, even one month without a paycheck — or trying to cover COBRA insurance — could liquidate what little savings you have or push you farther into debt. Employers know this. Even if they don’t say it aloud (they very well might in HR meetings!) they know it. They know who is most beholden, too, even if they don’t know the specifics of your bank statement. They know the workers whose partners can’t or don’t work full-time. The workers who have no partner but live in a high cost city. The workers who talk about their student loans. The workers with children with health conditions. The workers with children, period.

These workers are far more likely to endure quiet and not-so-quiet indignities. They’re less likely to question authority or report discrimination or harassment. They’ll deal with incremental and not-so-incremental reductions in benefits. They’ll stay quiet when their raises barely cover cost-of-living increases, and hesitate to push for anything more. They’re less inclined to support a unionization effort, even though a union could try and push for all of the things they’re too hesitant to ask for individually. It doesn’t matter, after all, if unionization efforts are legally protected; it’s still too risky. What if the union fails and you’re still that person who pushed for it? A catastrophe in the making. Dependency creates ideal conditions for exploitation of all forms.

I don’t blame anyone for this fear or dependency. Many people are in these positions out of desperation: they’re terrified of bankrupting themselves or their family members through medical debt, or trying to survive without insulin, or navigating the world without depression meds. They’ve seen people who have pushed back get punished. Credit card debt is a compounding monster; pay day loans, even more so. Many took out student loans with the understanding that it would be “good” debt — manageable! — necessary in order to follow a chosen career path, to rise to the middle class, to be the first in your family to go to college, to access or reproduce the promised American Dream.

Theorists refer to the forces within capitalism in stark terms: there’s Capital (the people who control and build wealth off of capitalism) and then there’s Labor (the people who are doing the work, but not amassing that wealth). At various points in our country’s history, Capital has been regulated — and Labor has been protected — in ways that attempted to make the relationship less exploitative. Not equal, not perfect, but less exploitative. If you’re a boomer or older, you have living memory of this time.

But all of that has gone to shit. Over the last thirty years regulations of Capital have been rolled back in the name of the “free market”; so, too, have many protections for labor. The new, contingent and “contractor” jobs have been in added in ways that circumvent existing laws. The social safety net — meant to protect all workers — has been disassembled; we’re all responsible for knitting our own with whatever shitty materials we can scavenge. Same for wide-scale funding for higher education. Back when it was largely white people going to college, we, as a society, agreed that we would subsidize that cost through our taxpayer dollars, making it so that you really could “work your way” through college and emerge without debt. Now, the massive, decades’ long defunding of public colleges and universities means that every individual has to shoulder that burden themselves.

If you didn’t have parents that went to college — or mentors that could guide you through the process — you might haven been recruited by a for-profit college, which offers all of the promises of higher ed at higher cost, with private, high-interest loans, and dismal graduation and job placement rates. You might have put the cost of food or books on credit cards during that time. You might have been encouraged to pursue an MA in the Humanities — which are often unfunded — because you were a talented writer and thinker, and had no counseling about the job prospects for someone with an MA in English, and graduated with an additional $50,000 in debt.

I’m not saying that individuals don’t have some amount of agency in this system. I’m saying that system is organized around student debt, and reliance on private health insurance, and access to massive amounts of consumer credit — all of which conveniently make the individual beholden to any job that can provide a semblance of stability. That may be the reality of a “free market,” but those who labor within it are not “free.” There’s no liberty or dignity in working a degrading or overly demanding job. There’s just fear that even that job could be taken from you, resentment that you’ve found yourself in this position, anger and shame that you somehow didn’t know better, even when seemingly every force was inviting and encouraging you on the path to where you’ve found yourself.

But you’re supposed to be grateful: you’re deep in debt, scared of an eviction, but at least you’re not yet evicted. You know you could be bankrupted next month by medical debt, and that your personal narrative isn’t compelling enough to raise millions on a GoFundMe, but at least you’re not there yet. We’re surrounded by horror stories of life on the free market, all of which function as disciplinary lessons: we should appreciate the security we have, the jobs we have, the health insurance we have. And we’re taught to look at big, revolutionary attempts to change the system as somehow unfair.

This was one of the reactions to re-energized conversations about massive student debt forgiveness last week: that people who had managed to pay off their debt would respond to the forgiveness of others’ with rage. That people who didn’t “deserve” forgiveness would be granted it. That it would go to people who weren’t desperately poor, to people who are doctors, to people who have under $10,000 in debt. But you know what else is unfair? Every part of contemporary capitalism. Redlining isn’t fair. Amazon not paying federal taxes isn’t fair. Predatory for-profit college recruitment practices aren’t fair. The current rate for in-home health aides isn’t fair. Lead in the water in Flint isn’t fair. The GI Bill, whose benefits were not equally available to women or people of color, was not fair. The bank bail-outs of 2008 weren’t fair.

There has been so much unfairness built into the system for so long, and people are worried that a program that could liberate millions of people from one component of job lock isn’t precisely fair? We’ve done all sorts of unfair things to try and boost the economy. Why not this one?

Of course, student debt forgiveness will primarily benefit those who’ve attended college — and, no matter the debt accumulation, a college degree gives you a statistically higher earning potential than those who have not. But so many Americans have debt from degrees they did not complete: not because they were lazy, but because the surplus cost was too much, because they couldn’t juggle childcare, or any number of other reasons. And no one thinks debt forgiveness should be the only fix moving forward. Rather, it’s part of a whole host of efforts to re-knit the collective safety net, including efforts to substantively lower the cost of college (or even make it free) for generations moving forward. (Here’s a great, cogent read on how forgiveness could and should work under the Biden administration)

What does a nation in decline feel like? A place where the vast majority of the population is afraid, stultified by work, too exhausted to think expansively, their potential limited in so many spoken and unspoken ways. One of the arguments for a Universal Basic Income — or something approximating it, in the form of a robust safety net — is the generalized freedom it provides. In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks describes this freedom from the wage relation (and, by extension, job lock) as “the time and space for invention.”

She continues: “That distance might in turn create the possibility of a life no longer so throughly and relentlessly dependent upon work for its qualities […] not so that we can have, do, or be what we already want, do, or are, but because it might allow us to consider and experiment with different kinds of lives, with wanting and doing, and being otherwise.”

Americans love to talk about freedom — but it’s largely a freedom to consume and accumulate debt. We are surrounded, even overwhelmed, with choice — why do you think Wirecutter is so successful!!! — but those choices are ultimately meaningless and never liberating. Picking the best weighted blanket will not make me feel better. It’ll just make it easier to sleep with the anxiety of losing everything at any moment.

But what if the trajectory of our lives didn’t hinge on health insurance? On paying down a debt until we die? What would it take to make radically different sort of lives — and communities — for ourselves? Time and space and freedom to imagine them. Something our current system makes as difficult, and elusive, as possible.

So who is invested in propping up this system? Who benefits from dependency on bad jobs? Who thrives on others’ immobility? You know the answers, you know how to type “eat the rich,” you might even say “fuck capitalism.” But until we get on board with massive changes, even ostensibly “unfair” ones with the potential to actually reorganize our society — then we’ll just keep re-reading the same book, with the same plot, and the same quietly tragic ending.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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