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You Can't Pay Your Rent with Praise and Applause. There's a Term for That.
It's called vocational awe.
When one of our teachers got hit by a car, the driver sped off. I wound up taking over her classes for the rest of the semester. The local news called us heroes. The dean saw me on the way to his office one morning. He said, “I just wanted to say thank you so much for stepping up. You’re a lifesaver.”
Obviously, I did it for free.
It would’ve been in poor taste for me to ask for money given the circumstances. It’s worth pointing out that nobody offered, either. It was naturally assumed that another teacher would take over the considerable workload, for nothing. We do it all the time, and we do it to support each other.
The public loves that.
At the time, I was doing a lot of other extra work. I was running a statewide teacher training program. I was assisting the department chair, scheduling classes and dealing with student behavior issues. I was teaching another course on overload without compensation. I was mentoring other, younger teachers in the afternoons. I was working on two academic articles.
It was a lot.
Toward the end of the semester, I did ask for something. I wanted a course release in the spring, so I could stop working so many nights and weekends. It was starting to put stress on my marriage.
The answer came back:
Not only did the answer come back negative, but the dean decided that all of this work belonged to me anyway. It wasn’t extra work that was appreciated anymore. It had become a new expectation. The dean didn’t say any of this to my face. He had my department chair deliver the message. He tried to comfort me: “Hey, we’re teachers. You signed up for this. It was never about the money.”
He made twice as much as I did.
I spent the weekend before Christmas on campus, getting my courses ready for the next semester. At the time, I shared a studio apartment with my spouse. There was no space for a home office. It was cold. The university had shut off the heat to my building, because they assumed teachers never do any work when they’re not in front of students. They locked the bathrooms on the weekends, too. If I had to go, I walked two blocks to a coffee shop and back.
All of these frustrations came to a head when I checked my mail. There was an envelope for me, from the dean.
The note came with a chocolate bar.
“Stay sweet!” it said.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced something along these lines. Your supervisors and superiors have shouldered you with extra work, offering vague promises that it would advance your career or earn you the respect and admiration of your colleagues.
And it didn’t.
You might work a job that solicits a great deal of moral support from the public. They might give you an hour of applause. The newspapers might refer to you as a hero every now and then. Celebrities and influencers might tell compelling stories about the sacrifices you make for the benefit of others. They’ll market those stories for their own profit, but they won’t share any.
Maybe Hollywood makes movies about your profession. The actors go on late-night talk shows and tell everyone how important your job is, and how everyone owes you a debt of gratitude. The audience cooes along.
You might try to leave your job or seek a promotion, only for your boss to tell you how important it is you stay where you are.
“This place would fall apart without you.”
Of course it would…
Anytime you ask for a raise or just some time off, you hear about how much you matter. The value of your work becomes the overriding reason not to reward you. Either that, or the reward is more work. Doing it for nothing or almost nothing becomes a badge of martyrdom.
You’re supposed to wear it with pride.
Maybe you find yourself in an awkward position. If you accept the praise, then it means you accept the long hours and low pay, along with the crushing responsibility. You accept the abuse from rude customers or patrons, or parents, or patients. You feel guilt at the thought of abandoning your work. You know people depend on you, and you don’t want to let them down. It’s not their fault that you work all the time for almost nothing. You don’t want to mention it to them, either. That would make you feel selfish, even narcissistic.
Demanding more for yourself requires you to reject the praise.
That makes you look ungrateful.
You feel ungrateful.
As it turns out, that’s not an accident. It’s part of the plan. It’s baked into your exploitation. If you’ve struggled to articulate these problems, there’s a term that describes all of it, courtesy of librarians.
It’s called vocational awe.
Fobazi Ettarh wrote about vocational awe two years ago for In the Library with The Lead Pipe, during a time when essential workers were carrying society on their backs. We still are, but the world has moved on. They’ve returned to their old consumer selves. Most of them have no idea what the ballast class goes through every day. I call them the ballast class because they give support and stability to everything, but hardly anyone ever thinks about their needs. Not only do many people not care, they get visibly irritated when you bring it up.
They call you entitled.
Ettarh specifically talks about librarians, but so much of what she discusses applies to other professions. The idea of vocational awe describes nurses and teachers, paramedics and EMTs, daycare workers and pediatricians, and more. If society can’t function without you, then you’re probably on the receiving end of vocational awe. The public regards the duties you perform with a kind of dreadful reverence. It’s so much work. It’s so little pay.
They can’t believe anyone would choose that.
One key element of vocational awe is noble poverty.
As Ettarh writes, “it should come as no surprise that librarians, just like monks and priests, are often imagined as nobly impoverished as they work selflessly for the community and God’s sake.”
Politicians and business leaders routinely invoke vocational awe in order to normalize the poverty and oppression of society’s most valuable members. It’s not an accident or oversight that we’re overworked and underpaid.
It’s supposed to be like that.
The mainstream media invokes vocational awe anytime a strike starts to gain momentum. Whether it’s teachers or nurses or railroad workers, the top 10 percent balks at us when we threaten to stop working and shut down the mechanisms of our exploitation. Highly-paid anchors and correspondents sit behind polished desks and blame us for destroying the economy.
They scare the public.
Ettarh also critiques the discourse around burnout, a loaded term that suggests you’re the one to blame for your exhaustion.
Maybe you’ve seen the articles cranked out by the goop crowd that calls burnout “a stupid term,” telling us that if we would just choose a career we loved, we’d never feel burned out. Oh, is that all we have to do?
As Ettarh writes, “institutional response to burnout is the output of more ‘love and passion,’ through the vocational impulses noted earlier and a championing of techniques like mindfulness.”
Yep, that sounds about right.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what my dean did when we got back from our winter break. A lot of us were looking visibly tired. He dropped in to remind us of our passion and commitment to teaching.
He warned us about burnout.
“Don’t let yourself get burned out,” he said. Then he explained why raises wouldn’t be forthcoming (again), but we all deserved them. Knowing deep in our hearts that we were irreplaceable would have to be enough.”
“We can’t do this without you,” he said.
The concept of vocational awe confirms what some economists have been telling us for more than a decade now. In 2009, the New Economics Foundation published a study titled, “A Bit Rich: Calculating the Real Value to Society of Different Professions.” They found that the members of society who contribute the most wind up getting paid the least. The ones that contribute the least make the most, because they exist to extract wealth.
That’s vocational awe at work.
In Bullshit Jobs, sociologist David Graber theorizes that more than a third of jobs in corporate America have no point. They contribute nothing. They exist to keep people busy, and to justify exorbitant salaries. Like you, my bosses spend the vast majority of their time in long meetings, coming up with ways to manage and regulate everyone else, and how to save money.
You know what they do with the money they save?
They reward themselves with bonuses.
When someone spends the majority of their workday looking for ways to pay you less, to pay themselves more, that’s legal theft.
Most of us could do our jobs just fine without the endless chain of supervisors and managers above us. They’ve already delegated the most important aspects of their jobs to us. It’s something they brag about.
It’s all just to say:
There’s a good reason you’re exhausted and demoralized. It’s not your fault. It’s not just in your head. You chose a profession precisely because you wanted to do something real. You wanted to contribute.
Now, you’re broke.
The aura surrounding vocational awe lured you in with its talk about finding your passion and pursuing a higher calling.
You believed it.
As you toiled in the trenches, you slowly discovered your loyalty and dedication weren’t getting you anywhere. If anything, these qualities were turned back on you as a reason to withhold raises and promotions. Your employers turned your passion for what you do into a weapon.
They used it to exploit you.
We need to disrupt this story. It was never a good thing, but now it’s destroying entire industries. The vast majority of teachers have left, and so have the nurses. Schools are hiring anyone off the street now. Airlines want to fly planes with one pilot. Hospitals can barely function anymore.
Corporate America has used vocational awe to convince the most valuable members of society to accept exploitation as a reward.
They celebrate your poverty.
They commend you for it.
It’s time they paid up.
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