Money, madness, misogyny: A history of the US work model

Illustration about career and gender
Aarthi Muthukumar/Senior Staff

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Work. Money. Capitalism. Our society is built upon the principles of work, a topic so abstract that it encapsulates everything a human does in a day. Cooking food, running errands, attending Zoom meetings: To us, it’s all just “work.” The United States is famous for touting capitalism. The principles of the classic workforce serve as the foundations for entire fields of study, such as the anthropology of American materialism as well as gender and labor studies. The evolution of work has truly come a long way, as the past year’s pandemic has taught us. Work has transitioned from cubicles and offices to the Internet and back again. But how has the United States created such a system? For that, we can learn a lot by looking at the segregation of labor in the U.S. workforce, and our first stop here is diving deeper into divisions along gender lines.

The U.S. work model has its roots in the American nuclear family, centered upon the codependency between a man and a woman. The foundation of this model lies in traditional kinship models, where the structure of the family determines the role each member plays. In the nuclear family, these roles are strict: men work outside of the home, women work inside of the home. This division has existed for decades, creating the model we have today. But the nuclear model isn’t the only type of family that exists. Marriage and family aren’t always mutually inclusive, and this diversity is unappreciated and overlooked within the work models we know now. Discrimination is especially common when it comes to single mothers. Marital status discrimination is not prohibited by federal law, but it has been outlawed in almost half of the states as well as the District of Columbia. Single parents might face discrimination because of their inability to devote themselves to their job while prioritizing their children. This causes the average American worker to prioritize capitalism over their own health and personal relationships, an approach to life that is both unrealistic and unreasonable.

Not only does the work schedule favor men and their schedules, it actively works against women. Asking about marital status or family planning is illegal in the United States under multiple anti-discriminatory laws — but the law doesn’t stop us from making assumptions about a person. Women often remove their wedding rings before major interviews, scared that an indicator of marital status could lead to other assumptions about their personal lives. Engagement leads to marriage, marriage leads to pregnancy and pregnancy leads to maternity leave. Maternity leave means time away from work, which means lower productivity and loss in both human and economic capital. In the end, the interviewer doesn’t have to ask a single question — one glance is all it takes.

Issues with the nuclear family model arise when women decide to break out of the roles assigned to them. They venture out of the home to pursue careers outside the scope of home economics and family planning, causing a shift in the division of labor. Instead of assuming equal responsibilities in the household, women are left to pursue their professional goals while taking care of their families. They play a doubles game, working twice as hard to prove themselves for less money. This is exemplified by the wage gap that exists within the division of labor. As of 2020, America’s women, both full- and part-time workers, make 84% of what men make in an hour. That means women need to work an extra 42 days simply to break even with what men make — and that’s just American women in general. Women of color and transgender women make even less. America’s women carry the double weight of a capitalistic society that prioritizes productivity and fails to value them equally.

It’s easy to boil the work model down to plain economics: Certain capital, resources and investments have to be weeded out if they don’t prove economically viable. But the United States has taken this mechanism a step further, internalizing it into society and reducing our interactions with each other to be simply based on numbers, feeding into the never-ending hamster wheel of the U.S. workforce. Whether it be romantic or platonic, every interaction seems to be a form of business. We don’t see any change to our workforce culture because it’s too far embedded into society and the fruits of capitalism are just too sweet.

It doesn’t always have to be like this. Employers in countries such as Iceland have already pioneered a successful shift to a four-day workweek without salary reductions for 85% of the population. With this extra time, workers realized that they need to start valuing their family, friends and themselves over the crippling stress of work. Parents found they have more time to spend with their children. And new research shows that as a result of this change, productivity and overall well-being have gone up and men were more likely to complete domestic tasks. The ability to be around other people is a major part of being human — something that we need to start working towards.

The devil works hard; corporate America works harder. U.S. employers may be more reluctant to implement these changes, but Iceland serves as proof that with just a little bit of community effort, we can all stop the madness with work.

Aarthi Muthukumar is the head of illustrations and infographics. Contact her at [email protected].