Five women personal finance bloggers — all of whom have worked in creative professions — have joined to write this series of ‘letters to our younger selves.’ Please see the end of this post for links to others in the series.
I’m turning 37 tomorrow. Sometimes I wish I were still 20 — this feeling reliably comes up in the context of the yoga class I’m taking right now — but mostly I am so grateful to have worked my way through the period of my life when I was vulnerable to the idea that because I was lucky enough to do creative work, I should joyfully consent to sacrifice my financial well-being.
If you’re thinking about a creative or service-oriented career, as an artist, a teacher, a social worker, a filmmaker, even a doctor, you have probably already run across the idea of “vocation.” This is a good SAT word; it means, roughly, “calling,” and it’s borrowed from a religious framework. The one who does the calling is God, and the one who is called is compelled to become a prophet, a priest, a monk, a nun, etc. We use it all the time in everyday speech, though, to signal that same feeling of compulsion — “I feel called to be an artist/teacher/whatever.”
I used to say this too, and it’s true, in a sense. I’ve been working in an academic career for a decade, not because it’s what I most enjoy on a day to day basis (that would be cuddling with the dog and watching tv in bed), but because I felt led in this direction. It’s at the intersection of my desire to “make a difference” and my primary skills/talents. I’m reluctant to let go of this career even though it’s difficult to make a living and to find a long term job, and that reluctance can be directly traced to my sense that this is where I should be. The idea of the arts or teaching or the helping professions as “vocations” means that these career choices carry with them a warm glow, a sense of personal fulfillment, that’s not shared by more prosaic options. (I met a guy last night who sells car parts for a living. He kind of shrugged and said ‘It’s not my dream job.’ What he meant was ‘it’s not my vocation.’)
But there’s a dark side to the word “vocation.” Consider the infrastructure of the Catholic church in the United States — the hundreds of Catholic hospitals and schools. The vast majority of these institutions were only possible because the nuns who built and staffed them worked for virtually no compensation. This is a business model whose limits have become dramatically clear as the number of nuns available to teach and nurse has seriously declined in the last few decades. Institutions that once balanced their budgets on the assumption that they had almost no labor costs have struggled to compensate lay employees as a result.
One of the ways that universities, literary magazines, nonprofits, etc etc, make their finances work is, unfortunately, by playing on the emotions of people who feel some kind of calling. The emotional fulfillment of following your vocation compensates for a lower salary than you’d get in “the private sector” — ok, I might go that far. But people guided by the concept of vocation often go further. I hear it a lot from adjunct professors and humanities graduate students, whose work is so badly undercompensated that they typically struggle to keep food on the table, even as they provide a huge amount of teaching labor that makes American universities run. Take this guy, quoted in Slate a couple of years ago, who told the reporter that “abandoning a class mid-semester is ‘a serious professional taboo’ for adjuncts.” That article concludes that adjuncts’ “sense of professional duty is what, ironically, prevents them from finding a job in which they’re treated like professionals.”
That quote resonates with me. I do understand why adjuncts continue to take these awful jobs and not only that, to stay in them even when better-paying work beckons. It’s hard to give up a dream, especially when you feel a strong sense of duty or calling or responsibility. But I now think it’s crucial to remind ourselves, every day, that our vocations (in this case, our sense of duty to students) are not an excuse for administrators to make us charity cases — and they are not a reason for us to participate in our own exploitation.
Looking back at my younger self, I see an idealistic young woman who believed that the main purpose of a vocation-job was for the employee to give, to serve, and the main purpose of an employer was to enable that giving and serving. I wish I could say to her, your labor is financially valuable to the institutions that employ you. Your vocation does not mean that you have to enrich others at your own expense. You need to pay the rent, put food on the table, and save for the future. Don’t let your potential employers try to pay you in the warm glow of fulfillment alone.
What else should young artists know about money? Check out the other posts in this series: