When the real-estate startup WeWork recently terminated a contracting agreement to bring its cleaning staff in-house, the company claimed that “every employee is part of the WeWork family.” By using the word “family,” it invoked a longstanding management tradition whose problematic provenance it may not have been aware of. Family metaphors are assumed to have positive connotations, but, as revisionists have long pointed out, family dynamics do not map evenly onto labor justice. Indeed, many people got to work to escape their families.
Consider the hierarchy of labor that exists in a typical family. For the longer part of the last century, women performed the majority of chores and childrearing, and men left the home to earn a living. The work of maintenance and care was designated “reproduction,” as opposed to something more economically crucial—“production.” The divide between work and leisure relied not on a social contract, but a sexual one: The breadwinner’s needs were expected to be met by an implied partner. Today, when men and women have professional opportunities that are closer to equal, time-use data still shows women have less leisure time than men.
So when a company contracts out service work, from catering to cleaning, it reinforces a line separating housework from “real” work, maintaining outdated assumptions about who should do what. Creative jobs are deemed valuable and thus worthy of analysis by budgeting and recruitment teams, while maintenance work is more or less disposable (and, often, invisible to those who benefit from it).