BY MIYA TOKUMITSU (April 2017)
Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?
Work no longer works. “You need to acquire more skills,” we tell young job seekers whose résumés at 22 are already longer than their parents’ were at 32. “Work will give you meaning,” we encourage people to tell themselves, so that they put in 60 hours or more per week on the job, removing them from other sources of meaning, such as daydreaming or social life. “Work will give you satisfaction,” we insist, even though it requires abiding by employers’ rules, and the unwritten rules of the market, for most of our waking hours. At the very least, work is supposed to be a means to earning an income. But if it’s possible to work full time and still live in poverty, what’s the point?
Even before the global financial crisis of 2008, it had become clear that if waged work is supposed to provide a measure of well-being and social structure, it has failed on its own terms. Real household wages in the United States have remained stagnant since the 1970s, even as the costs of university degrees and other credentials rise. Young people find an employment landscape defined by unpaid internships, temporary work, and low pay. The glut of degree-holding young workers has pushed many of them into the semi- or unskilled labor force, making prospects even narrower for non–degree holders. Entry-level wages for high school graduates have in fact fallen. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, these lost earnings will depress this generation’s wages for their entire working lives. Meanwhile, those at the very top—many of whom derive their wealth not from work, but from returns on capital—vacuum up an ever-greater share of prosperity.