America’s Broken Dreams: Review of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work is Killing the American Dream by Jamie K. McCallum
Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work is Killing the American Dream. Jamie K. McCallum. Basic Books, 2020.
“The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” – Gandhi
“Ours steals their money.” – Jamie McCallum
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, but from the way that its poorest citizens live, you wouldn’t know it. Ideally, how much a country’s citizens work reflects its wealth, with citizens in wealthy countries working shorter hours. Not in America. Too many Americans work multiple gigs for minimal wages with no guarantee that they will have enough hours on their schedule from week-to-week to pay bills, keep food on the table, and live with any sense of dignity.
As a full-time adjunct, teaching up to ten courses a semester and still relying on summer term classes to meet budgeting needs, I was drawn to this book to better understand why so many workers like myself are locked in a never-ending hustle to get by. As McCallum explains the situation the benefits employers are required to offer full-time employees make it difficult to keep a business’s books in the black. One issue could dramatically reduce pressure on employers and allow them to offer more full-time, benefited positions: universal healthcare, which would cost $5 trillion less than the current system in the United States. With the tall order of paying for the healthcare of employees, employers would be financially freed to hire more employees and pay them better.
Healthcare aside, workers are giving far more to the economy than they’re getting in return. The Walmarts, Ubers, and Amazons of the country pay poorly and force employees to work odd hours. Jobs in the fast food industry, at stores found in malls, and on the hypermarket floors of Target and Walmart are no longer held primarily by teenagers. Adults work these jobs, parents striving to provide for children—and the minimum wages that these companies pay are not cutting it. Walmart employs 1.5 million people, and, as of 2009, provided health insurance to roughly half of them. Walmart no longer provides health coverage figures, which doesn’t bode well for the “associates” that keep their stores running.
McCallum identifies the issues driving our overworked and largely underpaid society. He traces the rise and fall of labor unions, showing how labor laws were trending toward more concessions to the worker for a century before corporations and the government intervened. In the 1930s, labor unions fought for a two-day weekend and a thirty-hour work week. [Spoiler warning] They were awarded one but not the other. In the 1970s, workers were nearly awarded a four-day work week, but it never materialized. McCallum describes how “the declining hours and rising pay of the ’70s disappeared, replaced by rising economic inequality, longer hours, and the [current] American class structure.” In a complete reversal, by the twenty-first century Walmart workers would protest in hopes of getting to work more hours. Workers had lost all their bargaining power with corporate America. In McCallum’s words, “Employers decide, employees abide.” Individuals are left playing keep-up with life’s spiraling costs by increasing work hours and taking on second and third jobs.
Poor Americans haven’t just woken up all-the-sudden and found themselves subject to a corporate exploitation created singly by the agency of corporations and a complicit government. Cultural forces are at fault too. Consider Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), which describes housework as unfulfilling. Unfulfillment in the home helped lead an argument against universal basic income for single mothers in the 1990s, ending welfare and replacing it with workfare programs that undercut the living conditions of many poor families. Even more dangerous, the myth that work offers self-fulfillment took off in the 1960s and was in full flower by the 1970s. Americans looked to their vocations to provide their lives meaning and in doing so accepted less wages in return. Corporations were all too happy to restructure how work was rewarded. As an adaptation of the standard false consciousness system, “the new work ethic saved capitalism from critique by reorienting its objectives toward the emotional and psychic needs of the self.” Wages for everyone except those at the top were reduced, since employees were gleaning so much meaning from their work. And then there’s the wicked promise of the American Dream, that faith in the lottery-winning chance or fortune-making idea that will take any one of us from rags to riches. John Steinbeck put his finger on what allows Americans to be so easily exploited, writing, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
McCallum ends his book with a rallying cry. He provides a vision of a new America, where a variety of initiatives provide a functional standard of living for all Americans. I was most struck by an idea of taxing robots to support universal basic income (UBI) that jumps too quickly into believing in a promised utopia. The idea goes that instead of replacing workers and wages, robots could promise a higher standard of living for the poorest Americans. Such a redesigned economy would not require trading waking hours for money. Gone would be the self-estrangement and loss of self that accompany capitalism. Humans could give their robotic work to the robots—a term meaning worker—leaving time for humans to take on human pursuits. But with power in the hands of corporations, the likelihood that taxes will be applied to robots, and that any of that money will find its way into the hands of the poor, is not likely. Surrogate robot workers footing all our bills fits squarely in the realm of utopian science fiction, not the domestic agenda of the US government.
Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. As a society, we’re still deluded by the corporations that exploit us, clinging to the oppressor that we know. Recently, while I was taking advantage of Walmart’s “Everyday Low Price,” filling my cart with bananas, orange juice, and eggs, I overheard an associate who had worn out forty years of shoes on the store’s concrete floors giving advice to new employees: “If you take care of Walmart, Walmart will take care of you.” The worker’s tone of voice didn’t betray anything ominous, but hearing him repeating this conflation of the personal and the corporate—when Walmart’s exploitation of its workers is an open secret—was deeply troubling. It will take a lot to escape the hegemony of the corporations that dominate our lives in America, to quit offering ourselves in fealty to our corporate masters.
Joseph Hurtgen (he/him) has a PhD in English Literature, a published book of SF criticism, two self-published SF novels, and writes SF analysis on his blog, Rapid Transmission. He is a writer and editor for New Rural, a website devoted to exploring the intersection of global culture with rural life. He lives in Campbellsville, Kentucky with his wife Rebecca and daughter Frances.
This review was commissioned via ARB’s Twitter account and edited by Sabrina Mittermeier who also requested the review copy on behalf of the author. There was no prior relationship to the author.