On that Saturday morning, I finished up my tasks at the Outpatient Building of the Psychiatric Center where I work, and ran down to the kitchen to meet Mrs. Martina Hector for our interview appointment. A co-worker had just stepped out, and Mrs. Hector was on her phone, telling her daughter she would call her back in about half-an hour. Sitting across me while I brought out my phone for recording, I told her to tell me about herself and briefly her work history. She at first seemed nervous – perhaps this was the first time someone had asked her about these things in a formal way, but as she began to reveal her life-story, she became more and more comfortable as the conversation took its momentum.
In her mid-sixties, she looked fairly young for her age and strong. Born in the mid-1950s in Dominica, West Indies, she moved with her parents to the United States in 1972 while in her teenage years. She would move away from the mainland of the United States to the Virgin Islands that same year. She spent four years in the U.S. territory of the Virgin Islands, working in a hotel as a housekeeper. When she returned to the mainland, New York City, she obtained a Certified Nursing Assistant license and began working for a private advanced living care agency. She spent much of her adulthood life as a CNA, taking care of the elderly until she changed profession and became a Food Service Worker 1 at a facility in Brooklyn under the New York State’s Office of Mental Health.
When asked why she changed from Certified Nursing Assistant to Food Service Worker, she said it was because of the loneliness that came with CNA. “I worked with a private agency and went to the homes of patients, and so I felt really alone. I liked to be alone, but I was being alone too much,” she said. I was perplexed, here she was telling me she liked to be alone, but she quit a job because it made her feel alone. In my head, something did not add up.
I had initially pressed the issue of job change because it seemed to me that Certified Nursing Assistant is generally looked at as prestigious more than a Food Service Worker position, because the latter does not require any special skill sets or education. There were no classes, and no certifications needed. More importantly, CNAs generally make more money than Food Service Workers, and there are career growth opportunities for the former. When I pushed more, the reason for the change of job became clear. The additional required persona of extreme courteousness in the way CNAs carried themselves other than the tasks of taking vitals, helping the elderly to bathe and clean was too much for her
“Sometimes,” Mrs. Hector began, smiling. “I will finish my work but the client would want to talk about things. He or she might want to talk about lost flowers or relatives, or ask about my life. And I’ll be like, oh no, not again.”
“So you would say the job requires you to have a certain persona that were not suitable to you?” I asked.
“Yes, exactly.” She agreed.
“I mean I just want to do my job of taking care of you, not to pretend as if I’m interested in your stories…”
But that was part of the job, she reasoned and she could not do it. “I couldn’t fake it like others did. So even though I would be making more money than I am doing here now, I had to leave. Here I can do my work and be myself without having to fake it.”
Her story typifies what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls Emotional Labor. Emotional labor or emotion managements, Hochschild writes, is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors (Hochschild 1983).
When Mrs. Hector saw that she couldn’t function properly in this emotional labor, she left health care. Now in her job as a supervisor of food service workers, she feels less phony and thinks she’s doing fine, even though supervising comes with its own headaches.
Before closing the interview, I asked about her retirement plans, and she said in a year or two, she will be fully retired. She plans to travel and see the world. Connecting her retirement plans to one of her earlier statements about the extreme hardship it is to work and raise children in New York, I told her to compare her mother’s retirement with her own plans, and this was where it got interesting.
Her mother who died a year before had been her children’s nanny. She had moved from her apartment, although still under her lease and lived with her mother who took care of her children while she focused on work. “My mother,” she said, “did not really like work.”
Her mother was glad to retire and focus on her grandchildren, willing to be dependent on her daughter and grandchildren as her health regressed. In contrast to this, Mrs. Hector in response to my question, said she is not willing to play the same role her mother played in the lives of her own grandchildren. She felt she had worked a lot, and it was time to travel and learn about the world. Although she said this with an air of awe, sounding cosmopolitan and enlightened, I could not shake off the feeling that she was merely playing into the popular, commercialized notion of rest which people in the American workforce had come to embrace even at their own financial and health detriment.
If you took vacation time at work, there’s a socio-cultural expectation that you have to travel to a resort, go on cruise or simply travel to another country for tourism. Even-though you took the time to “rest” and your vacation can only take ten days, and your credit-card debt will surge.
This commercialization of rest which in fact is nothing but a simulacra created by the capitalists gets its inspiration from the erratic nature of flexible capitalism. Just as Richard Sennett theorized that in flexible capitalism the very notion of mobility is seen as success in and of itself; in a similar way, to do a staycation instead of vacation not only seems uncool, but is seen as failure itself because of its immobile nature.
The problem with this commercialization of rest is that it is valorized and antithetical to the notion of vacation itself. For when one thinks about the preparations, the physical and financial strains modern vacation causes to the working class, it goes against the most basic definition of what it means to really rest.
Mrs. Hector had the support of her mother in caring for her children in her retirement, and in return the mother was dependent on her. But Mrs. Hector symbolizing the quintessential baby boomer is not planning to do the same for her grandchildren. Instead, like many people in the American workforce today, she has bought into the commercialization of rest shroud in the garbs of enlightenment her entire work life and she is now taking it further into retirement.
Also central to this refusal to rest and aversion to be dependent on the care of her children is because of the way independence is valued in our contemporary society, while dependency is looked at as failure. Again, building on Richard Sennett’s idea of “we,” the contemporary American society does not see “we” in the form of mutual dependency or interdependence which is functional, but see it through the lens of dependency seen as deficit.
This for many millennials, especially those in the working-class is a social dysfunction. With increasing inflation, loads of student loan, and suffocating high costs of living, millennials are being shortchanged and put in a bind when those they can rely on for social and financial support are caught up in traveling, in “seeing” the world. Similar things apply to baby boomers in professions that do not have mandated retirement age. They’re simply not retiring, and are using the time to “increase” their enlightenment and following the latest buzz in town, travelling. This in another way further shortchanges the millennial as he or she struggles to find employment since the baby boomer’s position is not vacant.
As the interview wound towards the end, I told Mrs. Hector she must be excited about her coming retirement, but at that she put her hand up, interjecting. “Well, not really.” She said. “Don’t get me wrong, I want it to come. I look forward to travelling, but I am not eager. I saw how my mother’s health declined overtime, so that’s a bit apprehensive about retirement.”
This is an excerpt from a Tohib Adejumo’s sociology paper.