Culture Trips

Lost in Work by Amelia Horgan review – why so many people feel unfulfilled | Essays

A recurrent theme in Lost in Work is that jobs are supposed to be fun these days while leisure is now regarded as something that can – or should – be profitable. It’s visible in the idea that every hobby or “side gig” is a potential source of income; that tube workers should write inspiring quotes on whiteboards at underground stations (something they previously did spontaneously); that employees should answer company emails in their free time. While most people still don’t have “fun” jobs and not all boring tasks constitute “work”, an almost imperceptible shift between work and play has occurred where, as Amelia Horgan puts it, “work is supposed to be fun, even when there’s very little that’s actually fun about it”.

There are many madness-inducing observations about the nature of modern work in Horgan’s sharp polemic: of creeping surveillance, arbitrary tyranny, pointless churn and meaningless tasks. At a meeting of a rail workers’ union for a train line in south-east England, Horgan finds that staff are leaving their jobs in droves as a result of management’s use of flexible agency workers and its maniacal focus on “branding” and “customer experience”. In one darkly comic vignette, a railway employee recounts a visit from a head office director who “insisted all agency staff take off their (shamefully unbranded) gloves”. Still, the trains don’t run on time – or in some places, at all. As one union rep tells Horgan, if a train is running late, the network must cancel stops at smaller stations to avoid a centrally imposed fine, even if this means leaving passengers without transport.

This illustrates one of the strangest things about the privatised public sector: changes that were supposed to result in more consumer choice and competition have created new inefficiencies and extra layers of bureaucracy. This is especially true in universities, where administrative and marketing departments focused on measuring consumer experience have grown rapidly since the introduction of market reforms. Today, two thirds of universities employ more administrators than they do researchers. As Horgan writes: “Instead of doing the stated tasks of a job, more and more time is spent recording partial or totally one-sided representations of work.”

Lost in Work picks apart a question that is both urgent and perennial: why does work make so many people miserable? Its nine discrete essays circle different aspects of work, from the “jobification” of daily life to the unpaid labour of housework and the rise of zero-hour contracts. Occasionally the exposition can feel brief, darting quickly between subjects, but Horgan is good at showing the connections between things and parsing the economic forces that fortify a collective malaise. As illustrated by the story of a construction worker who drove a mini digger into the front of a newly built hotel after he claimed his employers didn’t pay him, most workers have so little control over the conditions of their work that they can be driven to acts of destruction.

A prevalent strain of thinking about “bad” jobs – cleaners, couriers, taxi drivers – is that they are either a failure of workers to get “good” jobs, or of society to ensure there are enough “good” jobs to go round. But this division is itself a problem. It has meant that some of the most important jobs, such as cleaning, cooking and care work, are undervalued and underpaid (during the pandemic, the focus on “key workers” often meant nurses and doctors, not delivery drivers or supermarket cashiers). And a lot of the so-called good jobs – many of which aren’t fun anyway – are disappearing, beset by stagnant wages and insecure employment conditions. Rather than arguing for widening access to a shrinking pool of good jobs, Horgan examines what makes so much of work unfulfilling: power, and the reality that under capitalism workers have very little of it.

One field that reliably sputters out jobs in Britain is the service industry (although the effects of the pandemic on hospitality and retail continue to put many of these roles at risk too). As this sector has expanded, work that was previously done by housewives or domestic servants, such as childcare and cooking, has been outsourced beyond the home. A number of apps now caters to professionals who can have their groceries, laundry and takeaways delivered by underpaid workers on zero-hour contracts. The separation between people who are paid to do supposedly fulfilling work and people who are paid to clean up after them has pernicious effects, particularly when employment status is viewed as an outcome of personal ability. One of the book’s most vivid moments is when Horgan recounts a childhood memory of a playground fight between two mothers. One shouted to the other, with stinging contempt: “You clean my toilets!”

In societies that claim to disavow such hierarchy, “service work becomes a kind of fearful magic”, Horgan writes, producing strange effects among people at the top. The wealthy may live well while others are paid a pittance, but they must also live in fear that this power could be lost. This is the paranoia of the upper-middle classes identified by Leïla Slimani in her novel Lullaby, where a nanny murders her charges, and in Bong Joon-ho’s recent film Parasite, where a rich Korean family employs a tutor whose working-class family inveigles itself into their home. It’s the fear that “those ‘beneath’ you know enough about you to destroy you”, Horgan writes.

Addressing the problem of bad jobs will not be an easy task, Horgan concedes, and any attempts will have to address two growing problems: that there are more workers than work and fewer hours available within the jobs that exist, a situation that benefits only employers. Lost in Work is not a book of optimistic solutions, concluding instead with “severe weather metaphors” that encompass the dire state of the left (both the Labour party and the unions and other institutions that once stood for working-class power). But the outlines of something hopeful can be glimpsed here too, and Horgan’s suggestions will appeal to anyone who has ever done a job they hated: regaining fun from the clutches of capitalism; ending zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment; and allowing people more free time, not simply to consume more stuff, but to find “possibilities for human cooperation and joy” outside the work they do.

Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism by Amelia Horgan is published by Pluto (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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