As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, we published the responses to a different question.
How would you characterise the state of ‘work’ today and its recent developments? Is work in crisis – if so, how?
I’d like to address this question through the lens of social reproduction. ‘Social reproduction’ or ‘reproductive labour’ are terms that describe the activities that nurture future workers, regenerate the current work force, and maintain those who cannot work – things like child rearing, housework, elder care, and so on. These are the everyday tasks involved in staying alive and helping others stay alive which have traditionally been performed by women for low wages or no wages. They are also forms of labour that tend to be neglected in contemporary debates about work.
There has been a sharp transition in the ways in which reproductive labour has been organized in the Global North since the middle of the twentieth century. Keynesian capitalism was characterized by the dominance of the heterosexual nuclear family (as an aspirational ideal, rather than a uniformly distributed reality), and by the norm of the “‘family wage”. Under this model, reproductive labour was largely expected to fall to a full-time, financially dependent wife – as Sylvia Federici puts it: “the producer of the workforce and manager of the worker’s wage”. Most liberal and corporatist welfare states offered little assistance in terms of reproductive labour, and tended to rely heavily on traditional family structures as a result.
Only within social democratic regimes did the state begin to attend to social reproduction, using the taxation of social surplus as a means of shifting some elements of reproductive labour into the public sphere. This included the partial socialization of non-commodified services such as education and childcare – a move which gradually enabled women to enter the work force in greater numbers (although it should be noted that many working class women – particularly women of colour – had long been obligated to engage in wage labour outside the home). Even under social democracy, however, the state remained heavily reliant upon the devalued reproductive labour of women – a point that feminists of the period were keen to emphasize.
Under neoliberal capitalism from the 1970s onwards, this approach to social reproduction underwent substantial transformation.
The aspirational norm of the family wage has now largely disappeared, having been rendered materially impossible for all but a privileged few.
High-income societies are increasingly facing the demise of “good jobs” and the rise of low-wage, temporary, and precarious employment. Over the past forty years or so, middle-wage jobs have been hollowed out, leaving a mass of people at the bottom, and an increasingly small number of people at the top. These shifts have required a substantial increase in the number of paid hours necessary to reproduce oneself – not to mention to sustain a household or to provide ongoing financial support to others.
On top of this, we have seen a radical stripping back of state provision for social reproduction. As Nancy Fraser puts it, ‘Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point’.
A crisis of care has swept through wealthier nations
then, as people find themselves unable to either reproduce dependent others within the household (due to a depletion of financial and/or temporal resources), nor depend upon the state to adequately provide for them.
As such, we are facing a shift toward market-mediated exchange. That is to say, an increasing proportion of domestic tasks are being bought directly as goods and services or indirectly through hired labour. Reproductive work is increasingly being delegated to a hyper-exploited class of cleaners, nannies, and care workers (themselves often women involved in global chains of care). To quote Fraser once again, ‘We now have a dual organization of care work in which those who can afford domestic help simply pay for it, while those who cannot scramble to take care of their families, often by doing the paid care work for the first group, and often at very, very low wages with virtually no protections’.
In short, then, we are seeing increased need for support in terms of reproductive labour due to the necessity for more people to work longer hours in order to survive, as well as increased personal costs involved in this support as social reproduction is outsourced to the market rather than the state. Additionally, the supply of reproductive labour is often rather insecure, given high turnover in the field – an inevitable result of care workers facing abominable pay, job insecurity, poor conditions, and often complex caring responsibilities of their own. I think that it’s fair to call this a crisis!
Dr. Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2020, with Nick Srnicek)