cover image One Day I’ll Work for Myself: The Dream and Delusion That Conquered America

One Day I’ll Work for Myself: The Dream and Delusion That Conquered America

Benjamin C. Waterhouse. Norton, $29.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-86821-0

This sobering chronicle by Waterhouse (Lobbying America), a history professor at the University of North Carolina, explores how the American “conception of work became so individualized and how so many people became convinced that the path to success lay in working for themselves.” He traces the glorification of being one’s own boss from Thomas Jefferson—who waxed rhapsodic about the moral beauty of self-reliance, despite himself depending on hundreds of enslaved laborers—through the contemporary gig economy, which Waterhouse suggests appeals to workers disillusioned with traditional employers’ inability to provide living wages or stability after the 2008 financial crisis. Highlighting how government interventions have reflected attitudes toward employment, he contends that some legislators hoped the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act would revive the “industrial liberty” of small businesses, which had been the norm before the “first true ‘big businesses’ ” (mostly railroad and steel behemoths) arose in the 1860s. Waterhouse’s economical storytelling keeps the history informative yet approachable, and his searing analysis sheds light on how America’s boot-strapping mythology has hoodwinked workers. For instance, he posits that the allure of self-employment serves to divert attention away from the inequitable labor practices that make traditional jobs so grueling, encouraging entrepreneurship in lieu of labor organizing. Readers will want to check this out before quitting their day job. (Jan.)