Sorry, You Matter Too Much to Make a Living Wage

Sorry, You Matter Too Much to Make a Living Wage

One year, my boss gave me a chocolate bar for a raise.

It came with a Christmas card. The card made a joke about how sweet I was. He appreciated all the extra, unpaid work I'd done. I was invaluable. That was my third year without a raise, despite "exceptional" performance on my reviews. A lawyer or a banker would throw a rage fit.

In the teaching world, that's standard.

One of my friends used to work as a zookeeper. She asked for a raise three times. Finally, she got another job.

"Oh my god," her boss said. "All the animals are going to die. We're already understaffed. How could you do this to us?"

Another one of my friends managed to get a promotion with a considerable pay bump. She met with her department chair and her dean to go over the new responsibilities. At one point, the dean referenced the paperwork to process her raise. Her chair immediately responded, "You don't have to worry about that. She's not doing this for the money."

Teachers. Nurses. Paramedics. Daycare workers. Babysitters. Zookeepers. Librarians. EMTs. Administrative assistants. Customer service representatives. Essential workers. We all have something in common.

You matter too much to make a living wage.

That's always the excuse.

Everyone thinks it's vulgar for you to ask for money. Your job is too important for that. Instead of giving you a raise, they want to talk about how valuable you are. They want to talk about how much you sacrifice for some noble, greater good. They want to make movies about you.

There's a term for this.

It's vocational awe.

Fobazi Ettarh introduced the term in 2018. She was talking about the way everyone praises librarians for how much they sacrifice while simultaneously expecting them to keep doing it, despite the long hours and low pay and atrocious work conditions. Since then, the idea has caught on with teachers and other essential workers. It got a little bit of attention during the early days of the pandemic, but it deserves more.

You see, vocational awe serves a central function in our grotesque work culture. It's a cornerstone of predatory capitalism. If your boss doesn't want to pay you more, they distract you with praise. They puff up your ego by talking about how essential you are to their mission. The culture surrounding public education has done this for decades to quell dissent.

It's an unspoken managerial tactic.

If they can make you feel seen and appreciated, then you're less likely to voice your needs. You accept the praise as a form of payment.

You get back to work.

If you do something they don't like, then they withhold the praise. They start to ask if you're burned out. They start throwing around words like "toxic." It makes you feel bad. It makes you devalue yourself. It turns your head inside out. Now you're trading your labor for praise, not money.

That's the point.

There's an extra layer of propaganda slathered on top of all this. Managers and CEOs routinely praise employees who go above and beyond, providing extra labor for nothing. A few years ago, one of my chancellors started doubling up responsibilities on staff to avoid hiring. He tried to pass it off as giving them "new opportunities," making vague promises about promotions that never materialized. Meanwhile, he made roughly $300,000 a year. One of my deans called a special meeting to warn us about burnout, as if it were a contagious disease and not the end result of all the work forced on us without compensation.

Marx would call this the superstructure. It's the sugary coating that makes the exploitation go down. These days, it consists of slogans like quiet quitting, lazy girl jobs, and nobody wants to work anymore.

Americans are getting fed up with it.

Autoworkers are striking. Hospitality workers are striking. Underpaid actors and screenwriters are striking. Nurses are striking. Teachers are leaving and finding better jobs, leaving school systems scrambling or in ruins. Whether this changes anything remains to be seen. CEOs could just pass the higher labor cost onto consumers, driving up prices and repeating the cycle.

Either way, one thing looks clear. People are done accepting praise as a form of compensation. It's not going to work anymore. Vocational awe has played a big role in maintaining inequality and the status quo. It's the reason why so many essential workers endured their exploitation. They let empty praise get inside their heads and keep them from demanding their worth. If there's even a chance of avoiding or mitigating social collapse, then people who contribute to society have to be able to live on what they make.

If they can't, they're not going to keep doing these jobs. They're going to jump on OnlyFans and let everything fall apart. That's how we wound up here, debating whether states should let 14-year-olds serve beer or work in meat packing plants. There's nobody else left.

They all wised up.

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