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Book Review: After Work

Book review of Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek's After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time (2023)

Published onMar 06, 2024
Book Review: After Work

After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time, by Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek (2023). New York: Verso.

Book cover for After Work with a grey background.

The centrality of work in our lives is challenged on many fronts. On the one hand, a lack of good jobs and decent work creates anxiety about the potential and purpose of work. Thinkers like Kathi Weeks and David Graeber have pushed us to question the nature of contemporary work by showing the contours of “bullshit jobs” and questioning our investments in the idea of work. Miya Tokumitsu’s writing on  “Do what you love” reveals the illusions driving the fantasy that we can end job-based cultures and replace them with a life of passion projects and leisure.

The authors of After Work critique an approach that pushes work onto the most vulnerable communities as “a series of displacements” and not a solution that the end of work promises. Instead, the authors argue that a more befitting trajectory of a post-work world would be to enable more freedom for all by eliminating work of all kinds, including that of social reproduction. Such a project would involve recasting norms by acknowledging unwaged work as work, reducing the need for it, and redistributing the remaining labor equitably among all.  These arguments are set up in the introductory chapter. The detailed contours of how such a project can be achieved is described in the next five chapters.

The second chapter “Technologies” examines why the promise of technology to reduce the burden of social reproduction has remained unfulfilled. The authors point out that technology made two types of interventions on the domestic front. First, it transferred what was really being done at home to the marketplace. Second, it transformed what was collectively done into individual tasks to be performed with the help of a machine. The transition from the neighborhood laundry services that were once ubiquitous to the washing machine illustrates this point. As a result, it did not reduce the actual amount of time spent doing household tasks from the 1920s to the 1960s in Western households, which is a puzzle known as the Cowan paradox.

In the third chapter “Standards”, the drivers of technological failures are probed further. The authors observe that changing normative expectations ratcheted up the time needed to keep a home well. For instance, heightening standards of hygiene and cleanliness in the 1920s, the responsibilities of parenting and grooming children and the presentation of an idealized family home that were popularized after the Second World War and consolidated in the 1970s, foreclosed any possibility of labor-saving time in American households. Increasingly, an expectation to be “busy” was valued over leisure leading to long hours working at home. Although the authors do not advocate indiscriminately reducing labor at the expense of health and hygiene, they provoke us into thinking about the social norms that oblige us to work more while we are home.

The fourth chapter “Families” moves the debate from the structure of the household to its social relations. The dominance of the breadwinner and homemaker model that divided men and women into distinct roles for most part of the twentieth century is cited as the main reason why social relations around reproduction have burdened women more. On an average, women tend to work more at home and have less leisure time than men. These observations tie in with what Arlie Hochschild argues in The Second Shift, that working mothers put in a month’s labor more than their spouses every year if paid work, childcare and domestic work were factored in. Even though family dynamics and marital norms have changed over time, the division of labor in the domestic sphere remains trenchant.

In the fifth chapter “Spaces”, the domestic space is seen in conjunction with labor to locate how specific spatialities breed work relations and how experimenting with different forms and spaces can engender post-work imaginaries. The authors trace the historical roots of the post-World War II homes that were meant to house the nuclear family and the individualization of housework. This can be contrasted with experiments in common facilities, communal living and cooperative housekeeping that are collective ways of managing social reproduction. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Ansonia building on New York’s Upper West Side offered kitchen-less suites, rooftop farms, and on-site amenities such as florists, barbers and tailors that encouraged communal way of life and intermingling of the upper classes with professional workers. Similarly, apartments in London offered communal heating, water and waste disposal facilities in addition to deep freezes and laundries in the basement.

The sixth chapter “After Work” advances a series of proposals to enable the authors’ vision of a post-work world where the sphere of social reproduction reflects the possibilities of post-work positions. To expand free time beyond wage labor, the authors propose a triad of principles surrounding communal care, public luxury, and temporal sovereignty. These principles envisage a reframing of values that govern our relationship with resources mainly by emphasizing quality rather than exclusivity and communal ownership. Such a realignment gives us choice over when to work, which is what freedom is really about.

After Work comes at a time when the fracturing of the workplace and the space that offers for reimagining social order is effectively expanded to the world of social reproduction. The arguments advanced in this book have a direct bearing on the wellbeing of women who perform gendered labor and the way society views both domestic and care work. A call for taking domestic work and life back to the community is a direction that has the potential to both reduce work and divide it more equitably among the genders.

This book may be of interest to academics and policymakers who work on gender and technology. The perspective of female domestic and care work might appeal to those in industrial relations, labor sociology and gender studies. The detailed historical account of how technology was introduced in the domestic sphere and its commissions and omissions may interest historians and anthropologists of work. The critique of the current post-work position and its expansion to include unpaid work through the three principles is relevant to regulators and policy makers.

 

Author Biography:

Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. Her research examines how technology impacts work and how workers respond to those changes.

 

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