I hope you’re having a good first week of the month. I’ve been thinking about an article I read in The New Yorker a few years ago, written by Toni Morisson reflecting on her childhood job as a house cleaner after school – this was in the 1940s. The job entailed scrubbing floors and doing laundry, and Morrison both appreciated having a few dollars in her pocket to spend on treats, but most important was the fact that she was giving half her wages to her mother as a contribution to the family budget: “The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest.”
But with time, her employer became a bit more demanding and the job became a bit less satisfying, and she went home to complain to her father. His reaction would strike some of us as jarring today, where children are not expected to work for money and typically given much fewer responsibilities. He didn’t coddle her, look on with sympathy or tell her to quit. He simply said: ““Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”
I’ll admit that when I first read this essay in 2017 when it was published, it struck me so deeply that I would turn those words over and over in my head for weeks. I became a journalist because I had a passion for writing, because even though I could have chosen to do any number of other things with my life, I really wanted to do this. I have always considered myself passionate about the job. “Go to work. Get your money. And come on home,” was, plainly, an anti-passion, even transactional stance to a job that defined so much of my identity, and that made me uncomfortable.
Which is why I was struck by this recent article by Joshua Benton, over at Nieman Lab, analysing the increasing demand of “passion” of employees as a criteria for employment in journalism. “News outlets seem to want ‘passion for the work” above all else in who they hire. But all that passion comes with an unhealthy price tag,’ writes Benton, who highlights a study that found that only 4% of the job advertisements in 2002 asked for “passionate” journalists, increasing to almost 16% in 2013. Benton’s own research (of a smaller sample size of online job ads) found that a whopping 53% of job adverts in 2002 included a demand for passion.
Some outlets want hires that are “passionate about storytelling”, “passionate about watchdog and accountability reporting”, or even “a passion for engaging readers via newsletters.” Exclamation marks help too: “A competitive passion to win and openness to innovation is mandatory!”
I encourage you to read the whole article here, but Benton’s bigger point is that this “passion-creep” isn’t as benign as it first appears. A demand for passion above all else frequently obscures the other aspects of the job that might be in tension with one’s well-being and freedom, such as the expectation of being “on-call” all the time, poor remuneration, or an exploitation of emotional labour in journalism. “Passion is, at some level, a willingness to suffer for your work,” and this will inevitably mean that some people who are able to suffer for their work – in other words, able to subsidize, in some way, the true cost of passion – will rise to the top by what seems to be an objective measure.
If you have a partner who does the domestic labour and school runs, if you have a car and are able to get to assignments quickly, if you are otherwise financially stable or have some social capital, then you will be read as objectively “more passionate” that someone who has a different set of options to work within.
The pandemic has changed our relationship to work, proving that work doesn’t have to be the centre of our lives. We would do well to critically examine what we really mean when we demand, like one job ad did, that someone be “passionate about arts and culture — and how they tell the stories of a community…You are passionate about audio — or excited to learn. You are passionate about writing.” All in the same ad. Whew!
Go to work y’all. Get your money. And go on home!
In the meantime, here’s:
What We’re Reading: Lords of Impunity, a new book by Rasna Warah that is now available at Nuria Store, and will be on Amazon from Feb 15. This book is a scathing critique of the UN from an insider’s perspective, highlighting the corruption, misogyny, and crude impunity that drives much of the UN’s work – with an urgent call for change.
What We’re Watching: Get Laid (2019), a short mockumentary directed by one of our Baraza members, Wanjeri Gakuru. It follows the escapades of Kui (played by Patricia Kihoro) as a quirky loner ahead of a mysterious date organized by an exclusive dating app. It’s not your usual cheesy romcom, but we think you’ll love it!
What We’re Listening To: “Geri Inengi” by Wakadinali ft. Sir Bwoy. Look, if you’re not familiar with Sheng and a certain Nairobi culture, I don’t know what to tell you.
Curator | Baraza Media Lab