Why Do We Work So Much?

This past Thursday during our weekly check-in, the Kenan Pathways of Change Fellows discussed social media, its role in supporting or dismantling social justice movements, and the kind of labor we put into our social media presence. Notably, we considered whether our labor toward social media should be paid.

Source: Flickr

We put hours (sometimes each *day*) towards curating our social media accounts, creating posts, engaging with content, providing data for algorithms, and so much more. It can be exhausting. Community organizers do even more to engage with online content and communities.  Without it, social media quite literally wouldn’t exist. So, should we/they be paid for it? What other kinds of labor are we doing that’s unpaid?

It’s widely known that women are tasked with maintaining the fabric of society. Whether that’s sustaining a family, providing emotional attention to loved ones, or taking care of the home, women often do these things unpaid and all the time. In recent decades, more white women have entered the work force. But as women (of color, often) stay home or in the homes of white families to cook and clean and white men travel to business jobs, the critical role unpaid/underpaid social labor plays in capitalism becomes all the more visible. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner was integral in bringing about this realization in me.

A significant chunk of Accountability Counsel’s workers are unpaid interns and fellows. Obviously, a massive social media company operates quite differently from a 30 person NGO, but the underlying frameworks might transcend organization altogether as a manifestation of capitalism. Why is so much of the elite college experience predicated off unpaid internships and labor?

My first Summer as a Duke student I served as an unpaid campaign and finance intern for Josh Stein for NC Attorney General three days a week. I had to keep up my job at a local pool to account for the lack of pay, working seven days a week, despite interning 8 hours a day for half of those. I took two days total off from work while at home that Summer.

Fortunately, my bosses acknowledged we were unpaid and commuting to Raleigh each day we were there. They would let us leave if we needed, take longer lunch breaks, and encouraged us to take time we needed for our health. This open benevolence is rarely the case for unpaid internships, though.

My story is not dissimilar from many students who cannot participate in unpaid internships without some type of outside funding. Fortunately enough for me, Kenan provides Summer funding for the placement of its Pathways Fellows – not enough that I don’t still seek out other funds, but certainly enough to acknowledge the efforts of my labor. Thanks to the gated privilege of Summer internship funding, it seems that unpaid labor is both a massive privilege and a force of oppression. Because many elite or accredited internships are unpaid, they exclude a large swath of students who cannot afford to sacrifice their time, encouraging wealthier students to participate in internships that set them up for a life of generous earnings.

Accountability Counsel has not done much to acknowledge the fact that we are all unpaid by them, most likely because unpaid interns are standard for the world of small NGOs, but they have created an experience that is rewarding nonetheless. Two weeks ago, I learned the basics of the Python coding language. This week and all others, I am learning valuable information about the world of international accountability, the key stakeholders in these conversations, and best practices for operating an organization around law, data, and human rights. Our department game nights help me create genuine connections with my coworkers, despite the circumstances of the pandemic.

But I wonder… should we all just get paid for all our labor? It almost feels wrong to demand pay for things that traditionally go unpaid, but in a world where we have no choice about the importance of money in everything we do, maybe getting paid for all our labor is right. Maybe the hours devoted to social media should be paid for. Maybe we should get paid for cleaning our homes, caring for our loved ones, and any other work that is foundational for society’s continuation. Maybe this is one of many ways we can address massive gender and racial inequity.

With a recession, a global pandemic, and a massive capitalist regime, I don’t expect AC to start paying every one of its interns, or even for AC to restructure unpaid interns out of their work. I do, however, hope that one day unpaid labor is no longer a choice at all.

Until then, I hope we start taking time for ourselves – time away from the labor of social media, our homes, and our internships that often work us too hard – and really, truly evaluate what we’re worth. I can guarantee, it’s far more than what anyone is being paid.