The Problems with Work

Despite my use of the singular in the title, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) explores several problems with work. My focus is not so much on the difficulties of this or that job but on the failures of the system of waged work together with the values and ways of life that support and are produced by it. Some of these problems fit under three general headings: underwork, overwork, and non-work.

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Impossible Unity: Adjuncts and Tenure-Track Faculty

n 2005, an estimated 42.6 million Americans (about 31 percent of the U.S. workforce) toiled as contingent workers outside full-time, regular year-round employment. And the problem is getting worse. By 2020, more than 40 percent may work under insecure conditions: underpaid and without job protection as well as lacking many benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and vacations with pay. Unionizing this large segment of the workforce has proved difficult. Only about 6 percent of part-time employees are union members, compared to 12.5 percent for full-timers.

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Solidarity: An Argument for Faculty Unity

As in many industries and professions, stable and coveted careers in higher education have transformed into contingent, low-paid jobs. As tenured full professors retired, they were replaced with adjuncts, part-time instructors, full-time non-tenure-system faculty, and other “contract” faculty. The shift was rapid and dramatic: from 1975 to 2010 part-time faculty increased by 300 percent, and the full-time tenure-track professoriate lost more than half its members.

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The Politics of Debt Resistance & Getting the Left out of Debt

Like others who committed themselves to the fledgling debtors’ movement, I have experienced the major occupational hazard of single-issue activists—we tend to see our issue everywhere. Oftentimes, it’s the only thing we see, and our more ecumenical allies have to find ways to remind us, either gently or more rudely, that issues and struggles are always connected. That said, debt really is everywhere right now.

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Getting the Left out of Debt

The problem with attempting to build a politics of debt resistance is that our crisis of personal indebtedness isn’t really about debt. It’s about neoliberalism, the inequality it reproduces, and the borrowing it necessitates. This isn’t to say that debt itself is irrelevant. A generation of college students and subprime mortgage holders can testify otherwise. It is, however, intended to suggest that mitigating the anxiety and material hardship that debt is inflicting on increasing numbers of us will require focusing less on the fact that we owe loads of money and more on why we owe it.

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The Precariat: A Class or a Condition?

The claim that work has become more precarious in recent decades has an intuitive appeal, at least among a layer of young people and activists. The concept of the “precariat,” playing on the old description of the working class as a “proletariat,” attempts to give empirical and sociological content to this intuition. The term has been widely disseminated by U.K. sociologist Guy Standing, whose book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class summarizes a long career of investigation into the changing nature of waged work.

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On the Contrary

Four and a half years after the crash, the American economy sputters along. Twenty-three million workers cannot find full-time work, and the percentage of the employed population has hardly budged since it hit bottom two and a half years ago. Republicans argue that we should reduce the deficit (a disastrous policy); Democrats urge a new stimulus (a necessary step, but not sufficient to repair our economy). Missing from our national discussions about economic revitalization—even in arguments made by many of the nation’s progressive economists—is the need to restore a badly damaged manufacturing sector.

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