Work has long been at the center of life in the United States of America. Since the days of the first Puritan settlers, Americans have valued industriousness—or what a person does—as central to his or her identity. That is still the case today. Yet due to new cultural conditions associated with technology and globalization, the shape of work in our society is being fundamentally transformed. As a number of recent briefings attest, we at New City Commons believe this transformation in work is important. We return to this theme this week by way of Allison J. Pugh’s The Tumbleweed Society: Work and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, albeit with a different purpose in mind. Following Pugh’s lead, we aim to illumine how the transformation of work affects life outside the workplace—in particular, how it shapes the way we love others and the kinds of loving communities we form.

How is the transformation of work in our age affecting the way we love?

The result of Pugh’s ethnographic study is the claim that America has become “the tumbleweed society.” By this she means that American workers are now inclined, much like tumbleweeds in arid climates, to blow wherever the wind takes them—here and there between part-time, flextime, contract, sharing, and temporary “gigs” to make ends meet. Most people consequently feel that work has become precarious, that the battle for job security and stable employment is already lost.

While this feeling is ubiquitous, Pugh also stresses that people experience it from varying vantage points. Over the past few decades, for instance, less advantaged workers have generally encountered decreased wages and benefits, unpredictable and insufficient hours, and less career satisfaction overall. Advantaged workers, however, have had a very different experience. Often unchained from the rigid nine-to-five jobs of their parents’ generation, these winners of the new economy typically labor on a “chain of projects” that seeks a “perfect match between worker and work.” In this environment, work readily feels like a calling; and when the desire arises to go for a mid-day jog or leave work early to coach a daughter’s soccer game, flexibility works in their favor.

Pugh’s central object of study is how this cultural transformation changes the way we love other people. For example, it is challenging for working-class individuals to protect their private lives from the ravages of job insecurity, because the churn they face at work produces a similar type of churn at home. In such a precarious environment, love becomes quite difficult. Disadvantaged workers often engage in a strategy of “needs reduction”: limiting the amount of love they provide or receive just to survive the deep uncertainties of day-to-day life.

Advantage, on the other hand, both mitigates and modifies the interpersonal repercussions of the insecurity culture, as it provides the resources needed to keep precariousness at bay. In particular, Pugh finds that advantaged workers possess the means to build a “moral wall,” which she defines as “a symbolic barrier keeping the insecurity—with which they [advantaged workers] are very comfortable at work—from infiltrating their home lives.” While such a safeguard works to a degree, it is also the case that the moral wall is replete with cracks; it admits and even encourages another form of “needs reduction.” By urging advantaged workers toward mobility and adaptability, the tumbleweed society denigrates the relational dependency that is inherent to love. Those who are young, sick, and elderly—states that we all move in and out of during our lifetimes—become great inconveniences. Dependents’ dire need for commitment and care comes into direct conflict with the economic need for flexibility. Thus if advantaged workers wish to remain winners in the new economy, they simply cannot commit to caring for loved ones who depend on them. They must instead commit to a job that is usually flexible but also highly demanding, while hiring less advantaged (and hence less flexible) others to do the “care work” for them. 

In these and many other ways, the central implication of Pugh’s research is that the tumbleweed society is unconducive to love. Take Robin and Ian Galbraith, for instance, an advantaged couple from Pugh’s interviews. In contrast to the previous generation, who often spent an entire career at a single job, Robin and Ian live like itinerants. They switch gigs every few years in search of better pay and a better fit, as if on a continual quest for a vocational “soul mate.” Granted, such “gigging” affords them enormous choice and flexibility while remaining on the path of advantage; but it also forces them to manage and maintain what American studies professor, Carrie Lane, calls “the self-assembled career,” and to do so through sheer willpower and grit. This makes for an incredibly vulnerable situation. It generates for Robin and Ian the overwhelming pressure to work most all of the time—to sustain an endless grind to keep pace with the many similar tumbleweeds blowing around in the culture of insecurity. Vulnerability in their case allows for close relationships at home, yet at the same time it pushes them to “forsake bonds of community and extended family in order to move where the jobs [are].”

This vulnerability, moreover, is no longer just for individuals. It now pertains to institutions as well. Harvard professor and psychologist Howard Gardner suggests that this is because of the new economy’s “winner-take-all mentality,” which makes everything vulnerable, everything insecure: If a school doesn’t perform, if a medical practice doesn’t serve enough patients, or if law office doesn’t bill enough hours, these institutions can easily be replaced. Institutions have become tumbleweeds too, making it difficult for them to commit to, and care for, their workers.

 

It’s worth paying attention to the way this transformation is modifying prevailing understandings of love, right before our eyes. Moira Weigel’s recent New York Times piece, “Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy,” describes one such modification with regard to dating:

If you want to understand why “Netflix and chill” has replaced dinner and a movie, you need to look at how people work. Today, people are constantly told that we must be flexible and adaptable in order to succeed. Is it surprising that these values are reshaping how many of us approach sex and love?.... Is it so surprising that we have turned into sexual freelancers? Many of us treat relationships like unpaid internships: We cannot expect them to lead to anything long-term, so we use them to get experience. If we look sharp, we might get a free lunch.

In addition to “free lunch” romantic relationships, the new economy is also transforming the way we parent. For disadvantaged and advantaged workers alike, there is an increasing tendency to displace the experience of insecurity onto our children. The ensuing tendency is to imagine good parenting in terms of raising a flexible child. For less advantaged Americans this flexibility is generally seen as a means of protection—buffering a child from life’s inevitable calamities and preparing him or her to bounce back from them. For those with more advantage, flexibility is typically viewed through the lens of opportunity—gaining new experiences, new friends, and new chances to succeed. What often goes unnoticed, however, is that embedded in the “common sense” of raising a flexible child is a form of relational detachment: The ideal child, we imagine, is the one who can take an independent stance, the one who can go it alone to survive the precarious and brave new world.

In these and innumerable other ways, the age of insecurity functions in our lives like a dry desert: Its form of work turns us into tumbleweeds who, without strong roots, are formed accordingly by the superficial winds of the moment—by the winds of “free lunch” romances, “flexible child” parenting, and the like. Perhaps a healthy and secure imagination of love, however, requires roots—deep institutional roots that form in us the habits of endurance, sacrifice, belonging, depth, and commitment. Insofar as the tumbleweed society lacks precisely that, love continues to find “no [institutional] place to lay its head.”

This is no reason to despair, nor to become combative—two responses antithetical to love. Instead we have reason to hope—the response love requires. Hope, insofar as it is neither fatalistic nor triumphalistic, tries both to perceive and to move toward the possibility of love in our time. With regard to the tumbleweed society, this necessarily entails the re-imagination of work. For instance, can we imagine a politics not organized around winning the culture wars, a philanthropy not organized around technocratic effectiveness, an education not organized around making students “shovel ready” for economic success, and a ministry not organized around efficiently engaging people with belief? Can we imagine work, that is to say, not in terms of the “winner-take-all” mentality of the age of insecurity, but in terms of a common love—the quest for the common good? The life of love in our age, both inside and outside the workplace, requires that we ask these questions. It requires that we dare to organize work differently—in a manner that transforms us and our institutions from the withered branches of the tumbleweed, to something more like the nourishing fruit of the vine.


This week’s post is written by Clay Cooke, New City Commons Research Fellow. Send reactions, critiques, and kudos to ccooke@newcitycommons.com.