Books and Arts

Living on the Job

Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream
By Jamie K. McCallum
Basic Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781541618343

Reviewed by: Laura Adler

In a now notorious clip from 2004, George W. Bush sits on a stool onstage, next to a white woman around sixty years old with her hair anachronistically styled up. She is worried about changes to Social Security, and Bush notes that she, like many others with these concerns, is “near retirement.” “We are living longer and people are working longer,” Bush remarks, “but nevertheless there’s a certain comfort to know that the promises made will be kept by the government.” She responds, “That’s good because I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.” Bush looks startled.  “You work three jobs?” She responds firmly, “Three jobs, yes.” He takes a pause and turns smiling to the audience. “Uniquely American innit? I mean that is fantastic that you’re uh, doing that,” he descends into mumbles over tentative applause.

Uniquely American that a woman in her sixties must work three jobs to get by—and uniquely American to celebrate that fact as evidence of her personal worth. Jamie McCallum’s Worked Over unpacks these themes. What explains the fact that Americans so often need more than one job? How do people juggle multiple jobs, and what is the impact on their well-being? How can underemployment be so time-consuming? And what are the cultural beliefs that legitimize and entrench this system? McCallum’s book draws together histories of industrial and labor relations with contemporary sociology of work and labor economics to answer these questions. The picture it paints is one of profound inequality, where workers have lost ground with the erosion of collective bargaining, leaving them at the mercy of employers’ drive for efficiency—either demanding too many hours or offering too few for workers to make a living. This exploitation,
then, is sugarcoated with the idea of work as “meaningful”—or about “more than money.”

Overwork, which McCallum defines as both too many hours and the exhausting efforts to cobble together part-time jobs, is an increasingly prominent feature of the American labor market. More and more workers are subject to longer hours, whether in response to mandatory overtime or informal corporate norms; at the same time, a growing number are deprived of opportunities for full-time work. In addition to too many or too few hours, workers are increasingly subjected to irregular scheduling, including on-call shifts, just-in-time notification, and back-to-back closing and opening shifts, or “clopens.” These are especially common in the service sector, where the vast majority of hourly workers have schedules that either vary from week to week or deviate from the typical 9-to-5 hours. A growing literature documents the negative impacts of these new temporal configurations, finding, for instance, that unpredictable scheduling increases economic insecurity and negatively impacts parental stress and child well-being.

McCallum’s book adds an important dimension to the understanding of this phenomenon by noting that “not all overwork is created equal.” White-collar professionals are working unprecedented hours, for unprecedented rewards, while working-class people are underemployed, relying on multiple jobs, each of which offers too few hours. While the objective conditions of overwork diverge, people at the top and the bottom share the subjective experience that work is increasingly intense. Work demands more than ever, either because the job requires so much time or because, in being so meager, it forces us to run between low-paying gigs, anxious about scraping together enough to pay the bills. Overwork is happening to all of us, but overwork is not about hours, it is about exhaustion.

Although overwork is not simply about hours, McCallum is adamant that it is about time—working too many hours or too few; working at odd hours; and working hours, minutes, and seconds  that are more and more minutely monitored and controlled by employers.

To explore the nature of overwork in the United States, McCallum takes a tour across time and space, from the time studies of efficiency expert Frederick Taylor to the “ghostwork” of today’s MTurkers, who provide the invisible labor that is disguised as automation. McCallum is especially adept at revealing the complex histories behind contemporary tropes, like the crosscurrents of progressivism and conservativism that shaped both the Silicon Valley ethos and the current enthusiasm for Universal Basic Income (UBI). He brings to life characters and events that illustrate these core ideas, like the time when President Richard Nixon almost passed UBI. That effort was undermined by advisor Martin Anderson’s insistence that Nixon first understand the Speenhamland laws, most famously chronicled by socialist Karl Polanyi in his classic book The Great Transformation. Polanyi argued that systems of wage supplementation “effectively prevented the establishment of a competitive labor market,” subsidizing employers who opted to slash wages and disincentivizing work among the poor, thus leading to mass “pauperization.” Guaranteed income, now advocated by centrists and liberals, was first proposed by a  Republican and foiled by that Republican’s reading of a socialist analysis.

Of particular interest is the thread of gender issues running through this book—a welcome contrast to the typically male-dominated histories of labor and industrial relations. McCallum presents the story of Lillian Gilbreth, who worked with her husband to develop a technical process for increasing labor efficiency. She later applied insights from industrial psychology to the world of “homemakers,” developing systems for increasing the efficiency of household tasks. A briefer account touches on essential feminist themes of intersectionality. McCallum describes the conflicting goals of the mostly Black-led National Welfare Rights Organization, which insisted on material security beyond labor through a “right to welfare,” and the mostly white women who saw the imposition of a work requirement on welfare as empowering, helping them justify their own entrance into the labor force.

Although overwork is not simply about hours, McCallum is adamant that it is about time—working too many hours or too few; working at odd hours; and working hours, minutes, and seconds that are more and more minutely monitored and controlled by employers. The theme of time is compelling and historically central to sociology. McCallum points to sociologist Max Weber’s portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who “equated time management with moral goodness”; Frederick Taylor’s use of the stopwatch to measure and redesign work tasks; and E.P. Thompson’s history of the role of “clock-time” in labor discipline. But precisely because time is so evocative, it is on this issue that McCallum does not quite deliver. He tries to parse time from other labor issues, like wages, but comes back again and again to the fact that people would have to spend less time at work—and could live on just one job—if their wages were higher. And although he often and accurately attributes the degradation of working conditions to the erosion of worker power in the United States, he never fully articulates a compelling theory for the connection between power and time.

The book also calls out for further study in two areas. First, McCallum argues that there is something unique about the American system, repeatedly arguing the United States deviates from the “typical” inverse correlation between prosperity and work hours. But over the twentieth century, the United States mostly tracks other Western nations in average hours per worker per year. More fundamentally, heterogeneity in the reasons for long hours and the intensiveness of work means that total hours are an unreliable proxy for job quality. More international comparison would be useful for teasing out both the quantitative trends and the cultural meaning attached to more or less work in different social contexts.

The last point gets to the second opportunity presented by McCallum’s book—for more interpretive cultural analysis. McCallum relies on interviews with dozens of workers and labor rights activists, but he uses these data to illustrate big claims with vivid stories. There is a missed opportunity to use interpretive analysis to understand what overwork means to people. Beyond the fact that work is supposed to be meaningful, how do people make sense of their work-induced exhaustion? How do they draw on personal values or narratives to cope with exploitation—or even to resist it? And how do these strategies vary across workers in different social positions? McCallum is clearly interested in “culture”: he spends a chapter unpacking the ways in the which a capitalist ideology has normalized overwork and how the idea that work ought to be intrinsically meaningful has been used to substitute for declining material rewards. But he stops short of employing the full sociological toolkit, which would allow him not just to point to ideology but also to analyze the symbolic worlds that people draw on as they navigate the labor market.

There is a missed opportunity to use interpretive analysis to understand what overwork means to people.

Worked Over provides a searing portrait of the human cost of asymmetrical power in the workplace—the vagaries of the gig economy, the abuses of employers accountable only to shareholders, and the sense of helplessness that America’s workers, especially the poorest ones, face every day. The book is the most surprising when highlighting the cruel edge of practices we have become nearly numb to: how workplace surveillance is not just uncomfortable, but should be thought of as “abusive monitoring”; how the long and irregular hours of gig workers are tied to the whims of elites, whose desire for midnight home delivery is as much about consuming goods as consuming the time of others. At the end of the day, McCallum clearly demonstrates that the dignity, health, and security of the American workforce will require nothing short of a complete transformation of the economy.

Author Biography
Laura Adler is a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University and an American Association of University Women Fellow. Her research examines issues at the intersection of economic sociology, organizations, gender, and culture.

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