WorkingNation welcomes journalist Livia Gershon as our featured writer for August. Gershon specializes in writing about how the economy interacts with the everyday lives of people and her work has previously appeared in HuffPost, Aeon and Vice.
Gershon’s series on emotional labor, which is work that places emotional skills above physical skills, begins on August 8 and will run on subsequent Mondays. She talked with WorkingNation about the genesis of her columns and explains how emotional labor could become the future for workers displaced by automation.
WN: Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for WorkingNation. What attracted you to contribute to the website?
LG: I love writing about people’s relationship to our work, so when WorkingNation invited me to write for the website, I was really excited to do so. I’m fascinated by questions about what work will look like in the future. It’s so central to our lives, not just in economic terms but in terms of our psychology and our social relationships, and new technology is shaking all of this up so fast.
Your series is about the consequences and benefits of emotional labor. Why is this subject an important discussion when talking about the future of work?
Emotional and social skills, just like human creativity and our desire to imagine new things, are something robots will never have. I think most of us understand the importance of creative work and innovation, but we more often ignore emotional work. That probably partly because it’s often dismissed as “women’s work” and is often either unpaid or low-paid.
Soft skills, like communication and empathy, are crucial to understanding emotional labor. In one of your upcoming articles, you suggest that education must also focus on developing these skills in addition to academics. What industries will benefit by more emotionally-intuitive workers?
Right now, employers in virtually all industries are putting more emphasis on these skills. There are really very few jobs where people work in isolation. Any time you’re working with customers or in a team with other people, you’re using these soft skills. It’s also worth noting that health and education are two big areas where we’ll need more workers in the future, and they’re particularly people-focused sectors.
You also take on the role of men in feminine work and find that men are not taking on these in demand, but low-paying jobs, instead remaining unemployed. You write that this development ignores centuries of history. Why is understanding the history of work key to determining how we view the future of work?
If we look back 150 years, we can see that the range of paid and unpaid work people did, and the way they thought about it, was really different than it is now. Today we have a pretty narrow idea of what constitutes real work, particularly for men, and it’s an idea that was shaped by the industrial age. We’re already in a largely post-industrial world, and things are still changing fast. So looking at history gives us a little perspective to see work in a broader way.
What will emotional labor look like in the next 50 years? Will this type of labor increase in status and, hopefully, wages? What will it take to get there?
I think emotional labor is something humans have always done and will always do, whether it’s parenting kids or cultivating good relationships with coworkers. As a society we’ll always need people to care for the sick, educate and encourage the young, and comfort and support each other. I think in the coming decades, it’s going to become more clear how important this work is, and that we need to pay people decently to do it. But it won’t just happen through the “magic of the market.” It’s going to require political will and different ways of looking at the economy.
Coming Next Week: Livia Gershon dives into the world of emotional labor and investigates what makes people thrive in this type of work.