Since the beginning of the pandemic, Americans have been talking earnestly with friends, family, and themselves about the shortcomings of their modern-day working lives. Millions of people joined the Great Resignation, and many, especially college graduates, pledged to follow their passion and embark on a different career path.
But this yearning for more meaningful work is nothing new: Over the past three decades, college students and college workers have turned to what I call the “passion principle” — prioritizing getting work done even at the expense of job security or a decent salary — as a roadmap for how to make decisions about their professional life. According to my research, which is based on surveys and interviews with undergraduates, graduates, and career coaches, more than 75 percent of college-educated workers believe passion is an important factor in making career decisions. And 67 percent of them say they would prioritize purposeful work over job stability, higher wages, and work-life balance. Believers of this idea believe that passion will inoculate them against the drudgery of working long hours on tasks with which they have little personal connection. For many, following their passion is not only a path to a good job; It is the key to a good life.
However, as I discuss in my new book, Emotion problemPrioritizing purposeful work in career decisions has many drawbacks, and they aren’t limited to those you might think. To be sure, switching from a stable but unfulfilling career to a more significant one can be fraught with financial risks. But the emotion principle also poses existential risks. Frankly, the white-collar workforce is not designed to help workers nurture self-fulfillment projects. It is designed to advance the interests of the shareholders of the organization. When people put paid work at the center of their meaning-making journey, they hand control over an essential part of their sense of self to profit-seeking employers and the extent and flow of the global economy.
The Emotion Principle has become professional advice everywhere; Even most of the college counselors and coaches I’ve met have embraced it. But counseling job-seekers and exhausted workers to “pursue their dreams” presupposes financial safety nets and social networking platforms that only the middle class and wealthy can enjoy. I’ve found that when working-class college graduates pursue their passion, they are nearly twice as likely to later find precarious, low-paying work away from that passion as are the richer passion seekers.
The recommendation that job aspirants do what they love and discover “hire stuff” later (which I was guilty of before beginning this research) ignores the structural obstacles to economic success that many face and blames job aspirants if they can’t overcome those obstacles . The Emotional Principle is ultimately a solution at the individual level. It directs workers to avoid the paid workload by turning it into a fulfillment space. But it does nothing to address the factors that make paid work look like drudgery in the first place. Many companies, for their part, also tend to exploit the passion of workers. My research has found that employers prefer workers who find their jobs satisfying, precisely because motivated employees often offer additional labor at no charge.
Expanding social safety nets and protections for workers would go a long way in making the pursuit of passion less financially risky. And advocating collective solutions—better working conditions, more predictable hours, better benefits, more bargaining power, less burden—in our workplaces and through national policies will not only make paid work more manageable but also Best for people in jobs that have little potential to express emotion.
In order to get around the existential problems of emotion, individuals can change their personal philosophies about work. One solution is to shrink paid work to fit a more narrow space in our lives: it might be work that can be contained in predictable hours, that offers freedom to engage in meaningful outside activities, and that allows enough time for friends, family, and hobbies. To be a more desirable and self-preserving target. The most relevant question, then, is not “How can I change my career path to do a job I love?” Rather, “How can I argue with my work to leave me more time and energy for the things and people that make me happy?” Another solution is to diversify our meaning-making portfolios — actively seeking new places to root for a sense of identity and fulfillment. No one should entrust most of their sense of self to one social intuition, especially within something as stormy as the job market.
I certainly am not advocating eliminating joy from work. Paying work can be boring, disappointing, and even overwhelming, and having meaningful work is one way to make the hours pass more enjoyable. But the solution to these challenges does not necessarily have to be to position work as the cornerstone of our identity. By understanding passion traps, we can be more willing to envision alternatives to them. Follow your passion if necessary, but also find places outside of work to solidify your sense of self.