Care is often outsourced to paid workers – many of whom are immigrants – some of whom have left their own partners and children behind in order to go elsewhere for work, says Prof Laura Briggs, of the women, gender and sexuality studies department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The harsh crackdowns on migration to the US and the UK have left these workers in a uniquely vulnerable position. They would “work for almost any wage, no matter how low, to support family and household members back home, without the entanglements that come with dependents who are physically present, such as being late to work after a child’s doctor’s appointment, say, or the sick days that children or elders have so many of,” wrote Briggs in her 2017 book How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics.In other words, with their family far away, the worker is free to devote all their time – and their care – to their employer.
It is not just care work that is blending the boundaries between people’s work lives and personal lives. In many sectors, offices have been designed to look, feel and act like a home, to keep employees there for longer – with free food available 24/7, areas to rest and play with Lego, office pets, informal dress codes and even showers to create a feeling that work is a “family”.
When I met Karn Bianco while I was researching my book on how work is increasingly taking over our lives, he was a freelance computer game programmer who had tired of the long hours. “Your life became just work,” he said. “You would go in at 9am and would work through until 10 or 11 at night sometimes – you could get an evening meal there.” It was fine for a while, he said. “When I was an intern, I was single, I knew I was only in that desk for a year. I had no responsibilities, no dependents.”
But as Bianco, who is now 31 and living in Glasgow, got older and entered into a relationship, it became impossible to deal with. “I even tried to start coups of sorts,” he said, trying to convince his colleagues to walk out en masse at 5pm on the dot. But it did not take, so he was stuck trying to improve his own conditions, going home at 5pm on his own – something that was possible, he noted, only because he had worked his way up the ladder. Eventually, Bianco went freelance, then left the industry entirely.
Bianco is one of the founding members of the gaming industry branch of the IWGB, which is fighting the long hours in the sector. Traditionally, there was a crunch time, when, just before a product launch, programmers were expected to put in 100-hour weeks with no extra pay. Now, as games are connected to the internet and consumers expect constant updates, crunch time is pretty much all the time. “They try to instil that feeling of: ‘You have to do this for the family [company],’ rather than: ‘This is a transaction. You pay me and I work,’” said Austin Kelmore, 40, when I met him along with Bianco.
But what happens when the “family” is gone and the workers are left on their own? Layoffs are common in the games industry – so common that one observer created a website to track them. (In 2020, there were an estimated 2,090 job losses as part of mass redundancies in the gaming industry.) When Kelmore was laid off, his partner’s income was a lifesaver, but it made him think: ‘Do I want to do games any more?’ He is still in the industry and active in the union working against what he says is a systematic issue with work-life balance. “Without unions, we had no idea what our rights were,” Bianco says. “We were working illegal hours and didn’t even know it. Most of my time at home during some of those weeks was just sleeping.”
The pandemic, of course, has made many people face up to loneliness in a way they would not have done in the pre-lockdown world. One-third of women and one-fifth of men report feeling lonely or isolated in this period.
Ruth Jones* trained as a librarian in Canada and moved around from job to job – nearly once a year for 14 years. “Finding work, and especially having to take whatever work I can get, has definitely been a factor in why I haven’t dated much at 31,” she says via email. “How do you date someone wholeheartedly knowing that, at some point in a year, max, you’re going to have to make a decision about someone taking or not taking a job, being split up, doing long distance?”
A chronic illness means that, recently, she has been out of the workplace, stuck at home. She has realised the way in which our obsession with work is entangled with our romantic relationships. On dating apps and sites, “most people identify strongly with their jobs”, she says. Where does this leave someone who is unable to work long-term? “At a minimum, I am supposed to feel guilty for being unproductive, useless – and live a frugal, monk-like life,” she says.
She does not mind that she might not be able physically to do the same things as a potential partner, but she often finds that they do, especially as the apps are designed to pass judgment on people immediately. All of this means it feels impossible to find someone with whom to connect. “I feel like I’m not looking for a unicorn, I’m looking for a gold Pegasus.”
The apps often feel like another job to take on, says Smith. She will click on the dating site, flick through some profiles, maybe match with someone and exchange a couple of messages. Then a week of teaching goes by in a blur and, she says: “You have a look and you’ve missed the boat.” She often ends up deciding to spend her spare time with friends, or catching up on rest. “It just feels like another admin task: ‘Ugh, I’ve got to reply to another email now. I’ve got to put some data into a form.’” And, of course, those dating apps are big business, profiting from workers being kept single by their jobs. A couple of months ago, the founder of the dating app Bumble was lauded as the “world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire”.
Hancock, who works in a deeply solitary industry, has found the process of organising with her union enormously helpful. “I remember being in this room and hearing so many different people from different industries talking and realising that we shared so much,” she says. “I wasn’t alone.”
It is through the union that she hopes to be able to change not just her own situation, but also the industry. After all, as the games workers learned, going home early by yourself – or leaving the industry – might be a temporary solution, but the real challenge is ending the culture of overwork. Perhaps it is time to revisit the original wants of International Workers’ Day, which called for the day to be split into eight-hour chunks: for work, for rest and time for “what we will”, whether that is romance, family, friends or otherwise.
*Names have been changed