Housekeepers at the Westin Hotel. (Flickr/Douglas Muth)
Our workforce, once dominated by men, is now pretty much equally split between the genders. But a funny thing has happened since women entered it in droves: rather than all workers enjoying the stable, unionized, blue collar jobs men typically held until the latter part of the twentieth century, the jobs held by all workers look more and more like stereotypical “women’s work.” These jobs expect workers not just to make a product, but to do it with a warm attitude. They are less likely to be full-time, but instead modeled after part-time work for “pin money.” And an increasing number of jobs are low-pay, low-benefit work in the service sector, once the purview of women workers. We’re all women workers now, and we’re all suffering for it.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of bloggers took notice of a growing trend: the increasing demand for “affective labor” or “emotional labor” in service sector jobs. This was exemplified in a London Review of Books article about how workers at Pret A Manger are not just expected to show up at work, make sandwiches and ring customers up, but to do it with a happy attitude. Enumerated “Pret Behaviours” (since deleted from the company’s website) expect that the company’s workers “create a sense of fun” and are “genuinely friendly” and warn against those who are “moody or bad-tempered,” “annoys people” or “is just here for the money.” Heaven forbid that a low-pay, unstable service sector job be about earning income to cover one’s expenses.
This sort of requirement is not unique to Pret; in fact, it seems to be an increasingly common expectation. (This is why the cashiers at Trader Joe’s always seem eager to share an off-topic personal anecdote while they bag my Joe’s Os.) Researcher Arlie Hochschild estimated that about a third of all jobs entailed emotional labor in 1983 when she first wrote about the subject in her book The Managed Heart, but today, reports Timothy Noah, Hochschild estimates it’s closer to half.
In response, Sarah Jaffe rightly pointed out that this trend isn’t exactly new for one segment of the population: female workers. Women have long been expected to put on a smile and flirt at work, from nurses to domestic workers to waitresses to sex workers. In fact, the obligation to be happy and comforting was a big part of the few career paths offered to women in the 1960s as the transition from the homemaker model began to slowly give way to working outside the home.
One of the few jobs women could get was flight attendant. As Gail Collins wrote in her book, When Everything Changed, most flights were full of male passengers and some even barred women from flying. But women, while kept from flying the planes, were sought after to be stewardesses. “[T]he airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women,” Collins writes, and even fired women who had husbands. There were limits on weight that were strictly policed to ensure that the women remained attractive. “The airline industry [argued] with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive,” she wrote. The industry took things pretty far: