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Young Women’s Work

April 23, 2011

Yuki Noguchi at NPR (which, curiously, no longer stands for National Public Radio) has a piece about an analysis by Reach Advisors that found “In most areas of the country now, unmarried women between the ages of 22 and 30 without kids are making 8 percent more than men in the same demographic.” Reach, a private research firm, concludes that a higher rate of college graduation among women is the main reason for this shift. British philosopher Nina Power more or less predicted the trend in her excellent 2009 polemic One Dimensional Woman, but she points to the changing natures of both work and women rather than simple educational determinism.

Power has a dual thesis that includes both the “feminization of labor” and the “laborization of women.” She describes the first as the tendency of work in the post-industrial west toward so-called feminine characteristics. Labor in general is increasingly precarious, communication-based, and badly paid, as women’s work has always been. The second phrase — ”laborization of women” — is more complex and has to do with the shifting determined nature of women as such.

The laborized woman is a figure we recognize, even if the name seems odd. Power describes her this way: “[I]mages of a certain kind of successful woman proliferate – the city worker in heels, the flexible agency employee, the hard-working hedonist who can afford to spend her income on vibrators and wine – and would have us believe that – yes – capitalism is a girl’s best friend.” The women of Sex in The City might be the best example of the faux liberation of laborized womanhood. The show’s focus on traditionally “feminine” consumption distracts from the radically shifted role work plays in this new idea of what it means to be a successful woman. “Girly” jobs are no longer waiting stations for marriage nor a way for married women to escape domesticity, instead they are the productive base for an economy in crisisThe market demands no separation between work and play: the laborized woman is always at work because she is constantly maintaining and improving on herself as a labor commodity, like Samantha who seems to be at her PR job even in the midst of orgasm.

In One Dimensional Woman, Power quotes the Italian theorist Paolo Virno who writes that “correctly understood, post-Fordist ‘professionality’ does not correspond to any precise profession. It consists rather of certain character traits.” These character traits which constitute “professional” as an unmodified adjective (flexibility, enthusiasm, communication, independence, etc.) in turn determine the content of the “professional [laborized] woman.” One of the more important characteristics of this post-Fordist generic professionality that has gone under-examined is youth. Noguchi cautions in her article: “It’s still not certain whether these findings signal a significant change. The big question is whether — as this group of women ages, marries or has children — their wage advantage will disappear.” Work is now like yoga: Lose a little flexibility and you’re toast. It isn’t just that all work is now women’s work – as Power writes – but it has become specifically young women’s work.

The same characteristics that the contemporary job-market demands of employees are the things the media cannot seem to understand in young people. The New York Times Magazine spends thousands of words trying to discover why 20-somethings are not settling down to stable family lives, while the market demands that we remain always flexible. They wonder why we are so optimistic about the future under current conditions, while capital requires that we be forever enthused and idealistic. When Power describes the face of post-Fordist labor, it is not just any woman: “No wonder the young professional woman beams down at us from real estate billboards as the paradigmatic image of achievement.”

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