Themes of a Year (2021)
If read this newsletter every week, value the labor that goes into it, and haven’t become a paid subscriber — think about it! Many of the people who read this newsletter the most are people who haven’t paid — and I get it, I really do, I’m constantly saying I’m going to pay for things and take weeks to actually do it. But maybe today is your day.
In the last week, a few things have happened:
Good Morning America came to our house and shot for six hours for what will eventually be edited down to ~two minutes; if you want to see our dogs frolicking in the b-roll, turn on ABC on Monday morning. Yes it is going to be fully ridiculous.
I published a long-gestating piece in Vox on all the ways that American society is set up to be hostile to single and solo-living people (that so many people have told me it’s the first time they’ve really seen their financial circumstances illuminated suggests that we need a lot more reporting and just general acknowledgment of the lived experience of a full third of the population). It’s the seventh feature in my ongoing series about the various costs, inequities, and systems that have made it increasingly difficult to find economic security in the U.S.
I’ve been playing around a bit with Instagram Stories as a way to do a different sort of curated thread. This week, the prompt was essentially “how would you actually arrange your life (including work, leisure, caregiving, whatever) if you could?” If you’re not familiar with Instagram Stories, they “disappear” in 24 hours, but I’ve pinned all past threads to my profile and you can find them here.
And then, something that’s happening this week: our book is coming out! Out of Office: The Big Problem and Big Promise of Working From Home. The best way to buy is, of course, through your local bookstore. You can also buy via Bookshop, from the Culture Study “Bookstore.” (All affiliate proceeds go directly to the Culture Study Mutual Aid Fund, which is distributed via the Discord; if you want to more about it, lmk!)
Just to reiterate what a lot of you already know: pre-orders really really really matter. They have massive influence on our ability to write future books (and also write them about the things we actually want to write them about). So if you want to buy the book, it’d be so incredibly helpful if you ordered it now. (Alternately, it’s also really important to call your local library and request they order it!) The book is filled with the history of work and how to make it better, which includes how to actually figure out what hybrid work looks like. But like so much of my work (and Charlie’s!) it is ultimately about figuring out how to decenter work moving forward.
I personally find the process of doing press both exhausting (it’s a lot of time talking) and fascinating. I get more practiced at some answers but also often go off the deep end on a particular topic. Sometimes that means trying to convince the interviewer that you can, in fact, work with close friends at a kitchen table. Recently interviewers have been really interested in talking about the section of the book that features the so-called “Organization Man,” which means I end up talking about my Granddad. Sometimes people just really want to talk about the nightmares of Slack.
Regardless, the process of talking about the book all the time — coupled with the writing I’ve been doing this year, the conversations I’ve been having on Discord/and in threads, both here and on Instagram — have drawn a few ideas into sharp focus. And as the year begins the extended exhale towards its end, I wanted to experiment with putting those themes into one place.
1.) Our society values parenting, not parents; it honors “work ethic,” not workers; we cherish children in the abstract, but not actual children themselves
To me, these ideas are borne out in the contrasts between the rhetoric of who and what we value (Moms! Kids’ futures! ESSENTIAL WORKERS!) and actual policy and behaviors. I mean that in terms of Covid, of course, but also in terms of labor protections for workers, the safety nets we provide for parents (and single parents in particular) and general actions and policy in regards to the future of the planet. We don’t value people, just generally. We value capital.
The Christian nationalists — who, despite ostensible Democratic control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency, nonetheless command the vision and future of the country — dress up obsession with controlling women’s bodies and freedom in the wardrobe of “the rights of the fetus,” but then allow that fetus, once it turns into an actual child, to go hungry, to live in fear of violence in their schools, to go unhoused or deal with housing insecurity, to endure the effects of environmental racism, and to grow into an adult indelibly marked by all of those experiences.
Our “values” have been hollowed out. This is not a new thought, particularly for the communities who have always been left out of the larger (white, masculinist, Christian) American narratives. But it is nonetheless a unifying one of the past year. There is no longer a referent for the stories we tell about what our nation values or about “who we are.” Because what we care about, in truth, is growth and a perverse idea of “liberty” at any cost — including human.
2.) We have obliterated the social safety net — and come to rely on women, and women of color in particular, as its substitute
The most popular interview I’ve ever published in this newsletter is with sociologist Jessica Calarco. The headline: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” Calarco is now writing a book on this idea, drawing on her existence work into who, exactly, picks up the slack when a country has unraveled its safety nets. The answer is, of course, everyone, but navigating that safety-net-less society varies significantly depending on the amount of social and financial capital you have to rebuild your own, personal, ad hoc version of a safety net.
It’s hard for parents in general, but it’s particularly hard for single parents, parents without any form of larger familial wealth (“wealth” here is not, like, Scrooge McDuck wealth, but just any sort of cushion from family members if and when things go wrong). It’s hard for single people, but it’s particularly hard for single people who, again, do not have familial wealth resources and/or have significant amounts of student debt. (And guess who proportionally has less familial wealth because of systemic racism? Black and brown people. If you want to sit more with this reality, this podcast is where you should go).
Safety nets are particularly hard to reknit for people without college degrees or who’ve found themselves in other forms of debt just trying to dig themselves out of the holes — where they’ve found themselves (surprise!) because of the lack of a safety net. They’re hard for trans people without close kin or who have excluded from employment. They’re hard for people who aren’t citizens, or who have been unhoused for any amount of time, or who are responsible for the full-time care of someone else, whether a child, a relative, or an elder.
Life is so hard for so many people, even though we live in one of the richest countries in the world. I can order a Domino’s pizza on an app on my phone and watch it go from the oven to my door; I can start my car FROM THE DOORWAY OF MY HOUSE by pushing a button; there are IPADS in our FRIDGES, how is such a large percentage of the population still suffering in so many ways?
I know the answer is effectively unregulated capitalism, but it shouldn’t be this way. We allow those hollow stories about our national identity — the fucking bootstraps, the idea that “handouts” (barf, that word!) have morally deleterious effects — to confine us to the status quo. And there are so few ways to lean out, to drop out, to protest, particularly for anyone who doesn’t have privileges of class and whiteness and gender normatively. So we figure out how to keep going, because someone needs to try and make things work. Women, in particular, are taught that that’s just what we do: no matter the adversity, no matter the suffering, no matter the inequity. We make things work.
Most of the time, the labor to make things work — to make society work! — is un- or underpaid. Whether as teachers, as social workers, as child care givers, as home health aides, as nurses, as librarians, or as non-profit workers: women pick up the slack, because it is what is expected of us, because it is the way things are, because we don’t know another way. Some people call it Girlbossing or being a Strong Mama. Others call it an enduring feature of today’s misogyny.
Any form of resistance is construed as weakness (“the job was too much for her”) or laziness (“no one wants to work”) or selfishness (particularly directed at people who opt not to have children) — instead of what it is: the replacement for the American safety net, now largely of the invisible and undervalued work of women, breaking before our eyes.
3.) Work is miserable on so many levels — but it’s so hard to imagine a different way forward
Right now, most people are either not paid enough to get by (undervalued labor, paired with work that may or may not be physically or psychologically dangerous) or getting paid enough to survive, but working unsustainable hours. (There are exceptions to this generalization, of course, in the form of the vaunted “paid well + working reasonable hours,” but they’re often jobs with very clear union protections that ensure that salary remains livable and hours remain sustainable/safe).
Every week, I hear from people who are drowning in their jobs. Educators are deeply demoralized and burned out in a way that’s difficult to adequately describe. Veterinarians are facing down a suicide epidemic. Healthcare workers are leaving the profession — even if they’re paid well, it’s just not enough for the way the work wears you done, or the way you’ve been treated by Covid deniers — and those that remain are exhausted in their attempts to make up for staffing shortages. Same for retail workers, service industry workers, and flight attendants, who are dealing a massive spike in violent incidents on planes. Lawyers are miserable. Tech workers are miserable. Journalists are miserable. Non-profit workers are really fucking miserable. Librarians? Primary physicians? Higher ed staff? Fucking done. It feels increasingly true that there might not be such thing as a “good job.”
That’s not true, but we have reconciled ourselves to it as some sort of necessary reality: work has always been hard, and work will always be hard; if I feel like shit, that’s my own problem to fix. But there is nothing normal or natural about the way we’ve arranged work today. In our not so distant past, we have worked in dramatically different ways — and had significantly more protections against the increasingly normalized demand to conceive of all hours of the day as available for work.
Other countries, and not just the near-mythological Scandinavian ones, are right fucking here, many of them arranging the rhythms of their work days and weeks and years differently — just generally conceiving of work itself differently, of what we’re all here for, in the grand scheme of things, differently. But in the U.S., and in counties with similar exponential capitalist growth imperatives, we are addicted to the way things are, even though the way things are is making the vast majority of us miserable. Sure, that misery manifests differently (and in far more severe) ways depending on your place on the class hierarchy. But we spend more time trying to downplay our own misery (“I work hard, but it’s nothing compared to…..”) or competing with each other for the illusionary spots on the elevator up that we blind ourselves to the sort of solidarity that could actually foment change.
Yes, we need that change to address systemic injustices. Yes, we need plans that address every type of worker, in every specific sort of misery. But we can’t even start imagining if we don’t first realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Our current school hours are overwhelming for educators, too much for most students, and brutally inconvenient for most parents. Why not change them? Childcare is a market failure. Why not rethink how we fund it? Our current medical system fails in so many intersecting ways and it is preposterously expensive. Why not do the hard but necessary work of joining the rest of the world in decoupling it from employment? The racial wealth gap is expanding instead of contracting. Why not address it through one of its primary causes: student debt?
Higher education, too, is a broken system and a burnout machine. What if we stopped trying to patch the hull and just rebuild the ship? It’s really hard to be single or solo-living or a single-parent, to the extent that many people stay in toxic or abusive relationships that they would otherwise leave. Why not rethink the way our tax code and social security privilege marriage? We need more workers. Why not allow more people to become citizens? The fetishization of the one-family home has culminated in millions struggling to afford housing and thousands of others without homes at all. Why not continue to rethink — and, in many cases, revisit — other ways of living with one another? The carceral state is deeply racist and ineffective in actually deterring crime and hugely expensive. Why not actually consider abolition?
People want a way to be with their kids more, but not all the time — or work more, but not all the time, or figure out how to do work for pay and also do work, for others and in their communities and in their families, that doesn’t pay. Why not at least start thinking about how Universal Basic Income could dramatically change our overall quality of life?
How will we fund all of these new ideas? Private market solutions are almost always inequity machines, particularly with the way the private market is regulated now. When you turn a service into something that must not only make money, but produce exponential returns, you create a system that screws everyone who relies on it, whether as employees or patrons: see, for instance, the lived reality of private equity backed journalism, and health care, and higher education. It is so relentlessly bleak.
As an alternative, what about adequately taxing the preposterously, unspeakably wealthy — many of whose fortunes will only continue to grow as automation continues to replace human workers. And if our current governmental system is arranged in a way in which the interests of the rich (and the interests of the minority of the population, upheld through gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement) dictate our policy and the way we experience everyday life? Maybe we should reconsider that system.
When you sit with the problems of American life, when you hang out with others who can feel and speak them clearly, the need for change feels undeniable. But that feeling is too readily neutralized by what-abouts, hedges, strawmen, and roundabouts. Very real feelings of misery run straight into walls of futility. I get it, I really do — this is the animating tension when it comes to so many ideas that fill my head, my writing, my work: there’s a fierce optimism that we can collectively imagine and then agitate for a different way of living in this world, periodically eclipsed by a dark pessimism that we are too exhausted and too terrified — and, ultimately, too obsessed with our own individualism to actually change in meaningful ways.
But today, writing this piece, I feel in touch with that engine of optimism. That’s at least in part because I know that you, as readers, have proven yourself eager to consider change, to challenge the norms that you’ve internalized, to sit with your own discomfort and to ask questions about how we can all do better for and by one another. Because the last theme that comes up again and again here — and in the book, and in so much of my previous work — is that we are starving for collectivism, for communities of care, for safety nets that extend beyond those provided by the state and manifest in our commitment to one another.
Building actual community is really, really hard work. I say this a lot, but it’s with purpose: it’s easy to forget, or to be hard on ourselves, when it feels so hard to come by. But some of that hard work is just allowing yourself to feel the need for it — and being expansive in your imagination of all the forms it can take, and open to the sorts of conversations that undergird and animate it.
I feel truly and endlessly grateful that this, in all its various weird and glorious forms, has proven to be one of those spaces. Like so many other communities centered on change, we are tender and generous, but we are also furious and focused. Because we are trying to figure it, this, all of it, out — with principle, with equity, with intention, and without bullshit.
Sometimes the conversations to that end go in circles; sometimes I feel mired in the mud of the everyday struggle. But I also feel consistently alive with possibility. And I hope, from time to precious time, that you do too.
Things I Read/Consumed and Loved This Week: