Simone Stolzoff: Please don’t call my job a calling

The idea that a job is a passion obfuscates the reality that a job is an economic contract, and sets up the conditions for exploitation.

(Álvaro Bernis for The New York Times)

Last month, in an interview about Warner Bros. Discovery’s $50 million streaming profit in the first quarter of 2023, the company’s chief executive, David Zaslav, told CNBC that he believed the Writers Guild of America strike would ultimately end because of “a love for the business and a love for working.”

As the sixth week of the strike begins, the writers’ persistence reveals a sharper truth: Love, unfortunately, doesn’t pay the bills.

The implication that love is a suitable stand-in for job security, workplace protections or fair pay is a commonly held belief, especially in so-called dream jobs like writing, cooking and working in the arts, where the privilege to do the work is seen as a form of compensation itself.

But the rhetoric that a job is a passion or a “labor of love” obfuscates the reality that a job is an economic contract. The assumption that it isn’t sets up the conditions for exploitation.

Indeed, creative, mission-driven and prestigious jobs often take advantage of employees’ love for what they do. According to one 2020 study, employers see poor treatment of workers — such as expecting overtime work without pay or asking people to do demeaning tasks that aren’t part of their job descriptions — as more acceptable if the workers are thought to be passionate about what they do. This stems from bosses’ tacit assumptions that their employees would do the work even if they weren’t paid.

That seems to be the message some W.G.A. members have gotten. “Writing is a noble vocation,” says Charles Rogers, a writer and showrunner who is on strike in Los Angeles. “But the industry is set up to make writers feel like they should be grateful just to be here.” Employers then rely on employees’ indebtedness and the proverbial line of people out the door who would happily take their places to justify paying them less than they deserve.

The idea that employees work for something other than money is also pervasive in industries that are geared toward helping people, such as education. “Teaching is a calling,” tweeted Mayor Eric Adams of New York City a few weeks ago. “You don’t do it for the money, you do it because you believe in the kids that come into your classrooms.”

That may sound like reverence, but the New York City teachers’ union contract expired last September, and Mr. Adams has resisted pay increases that keep up with inflation. Teachers need better compensation, not platitudes celebrating teacher appreciation week.

In a 2018 paper, Fobazi Ettarh, who at the time was a librarian, coined a term for how the perceived righteousness of her industry obscured the issues that existed within it. Ms. Ettarh called the phenomenon vocational awe, which she defined as the belief that as a workplace, libraries were inherently good, and therefore supposedly beyond critique. When a workplace is seen as virtuous, she claimed, it’s easier for workers to be exploited. “In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty,” she wrote.

Ms. Ettarh had known she wanted to become a librarian since she was a teenager. When she was studying for her library science degree, her professors loved to wax poetic about how becoming a librarian is a calling and libraries served as the last truly democratic institution.

But from the other side of the reference desk, she saw how the industry’s ideals concealed its low pay. In her first position out of grad school, Ms. Ettarh’s supervisor told her, “No one becomes a librarian to make a living wage.” (Ms. Ettarh was making $48,000 at the time.) She eventually left the industry.

During the pandemic, vocational awe was on full display, from educators who were told that they were doing God’s work but also to make do with what they had to health care professionals who were deemed “essential” yet often not given compensation or protection commensurate with the severity of their work. The perceived righteousness of honorable industries covered up poor conditions like frosting on a burned cake.

While vocational awe is common in do-gooder professions, it can exist in any field that relies on the strength of its brand to distract from the reality of workers’ experiences. Take zookeeping, a profession where the average pay is $16.51 per hour, according to Indeed. Zookeeping is romanticized — you get to spend time with animals! — but also characterized by long hours, hard labor and cleaning up feces.

In a study, the organizational behavior researchers Jeffery A. Thompson and J. Stuart Bunderson found that following the calling to be a zookeeper led to trade-offs, “fostering a sense of occupational identification, transcendent meaning and occupational importance on the one hand,” they write, “and unbending duty, personal sacrifice and heightened vigilance on the other.” The researchers concluded that low pay, unfavorable benefits and poor working conditions are often the sacrifices workers make for the privilege of doing what they love.

This sense of duty and personal sacrifice can conflate workers’ output and their self-worth, as I chronicle in my new book, but it can also have a chilling effect on their willingness to surface wrongdoing. When you’re in a great job — one that you feel lucky to have — the fear of losing it can make it harder to speak up.

But thankfully, workers are recognizing their collective strength. Employees at workplaces across the country have organized and are fighting for better conditions.

In Hollywood, it’s the screenwriters demanding more job security and a better cut of residuals. In Ann Arbor, Mich., graduate students at the University of Michigan are also on strike, demanding a raise in minimum annual salaries from about $24,000 to $38,500. In Oregon, nurses are calling for staffing increases to better serve patients.

And they have a lot of support. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a Gallup poll from last year, which is their highest recorded approval rate in the United States since 1965.

As Ms. Ettarh told me, “Workers are seeing that unless they work together to fight back, institutions will grind them to dust.” For starters, employers can recognize that we work for more than love.

Simone Stolzoff is the author of the book “The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.