We are at a unique moment in the history of the postindustrial labor force. Workers have more control over their working conditions — the pay, place, and pace of their jobs — than they have since the heyday of worker collective action and unionization over half a century ago. As a result of the financial and existential uncertainty wrought by the pandemic, many workers, especially professionals, are reconsidering what they want from their jobs and daring to ask for something more.
And the time to act is now. There is no telling how long this moment will last and harbingers of a possible reversion to employer-dominated old ways are out there: Companies are demanding that all workers return to the office; business owners are grumbling that the empowerment of workers has gone to far.
This brings an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on what we want from our jobs. What do we want our relationship to our paid work to be?
The Passion Principle and its Risks
Over the past three years, an answer to this question that has resonated for many is: I want to follow my passion. I want work that I love. I want work that is meaningful. I want work that is me. This ideal is what I call the “passion principle.” As I describe in my book, the passion principle is the prioritization of personally fulfilling work even at the expense of job security or a decent salary. I find that more than 70% of college-educated workers highly praise passion-related considerations in their notions of good career decision-making, and almost two thirds rank its importance above considerations like good salaries and job security.
The passion principle has long been a driving aspiration in Americans’ career decision-making, and more recently has been a siren song tempting many U.S. workers to participate in the great resignation. Indeed, I found that people who experienced pandemic-related job instability were actually more invested in passion-seeking than people whose jobs remained stable. The increased freedom of a job-seekers’ market, paired with a more existential, “life is short” mindset spurred by pandemic-related upheavals, has made following your passion seem more logical and more within reach for many workers than ever before.
But following your passion can be hazardous, incurring significant financial risks. Finding a job aligned with your passion right out of school may require sacrifices of time and economic stability. Searching for jobs that don’t just fit your credentials and skills but feed your soul may take months or even years. Leaving a job mid-career to start fresh in another line of work may mean walking away from the networks, habits, and informal know-how that have been the backbone of your previous success.
Moreover, the ability to navigate these risks is not equally distributed. Passion-seekers from wealthy and upper-middle-class families are more likely to have the social springboards (for example, family and friend networks) and economic safety nets (such as a bit of inheritance or parents who can foot the bills during an unpaid internship) that help them land work that is both in their passion and decently paid. Passion-seekers from working-class backgrounds are less likely to have access to these resources and more likely to end up in precarious jobs far outside of their passion.
The other risk of passion-seeking is more existential. Investing so much of our sense of identity in our paid employment may be the workforce equivalent of falling in love with a robot. Our work may be deeply meaningful to us — a core part of who we are and who we want to be. We may pour our emotional as well as physical and mental labor into our jobs and work far beyond what is formally asked of us by our employers. But at the end of the day, our relationship to our employer is ultimately an economic one — if our organization deems our position replaceable or unprofitable, no amount of passion will save us.
We should be mindful of the fact that by prioritizing passion in our career decision-making, we make a core part of our sense of identity vulnerable to the whims of profit maximization, structural reorganization, and future public health shutdowns.
Balancing Passion and Profit
I am certainly not advocating that we tolerate being miserable at our jobs in myopic pursuit of maximizing lifetime earnings potential. Enjoying the time spent at work is an important part of overall life satisfaction. Yet there is a lot of daylight between passion-seeking at all costs and a lifetime of in-it-for-the-money drudgery. Here are some guidelines for creating the right balance of passion and profit in shaping a career:
Cultivate the joy.
Loving everything about your job is rare — perhaps even a kind of fantasy. But there are many ways to have a satisfying job that don’t involve being passionate about its content. Finding work with colleagues you cherish, working for an organization whose mission you value, or finding a balance of work tasks that provides the right combination of independent and collaborative activities are others.
Shrink the footprint.
It might not be an obvious or easy option, but try to think in terms of shrinking the space that full-time work takes up in your life to open up more time and energy to do things you enjoy. Post-pandemic shifts to remote and flexible work have made this more achievable. A job that is unfulfilling but fits neatly into predictable hours or part-time work that provides enough funds for personal and family needs can offer much more freedom to pursue meaningful activities.
Diversify your meaning-making portfolio.
Make room to invest in hobbies and activities wholly outside of work that feel meaningful and self-expressive, whether that’s sports, volunteering, music, or pub trivia nights. Elbowing regular space in our schedules for non-work passions can be challenging, but in this moment we need to be even more militant about it. Find the time and protect it. In this way we can push back on the ideal worker norm, and the default demand that we must be singularly devoted to our jobs.
Make the ask, and help each other.
Use this pandemic transition time to reflect on what you want your relationship to paid employment to be. That means seizing this moment of negotiation power to ask for what you need to change your work hours or work structure, or to invest time in yourself outside of work. And remember, you’re not alone — many workers are in the same boat. So find ways to make these demands collectively. Build coalitions with colleagues and other workers. Find solidarity and support with others in your industry. Look out for what negotiation tactics have worked for others.
If history is any indication, this golden hour of worker empowerment may be short-lived indeed. Let’s use it to redesign the future of work for the better.