To Do What You Love, Or Not? Employment and the Dominant Ideology of Work Passion
“Do what you love” is something we often hear in response to questions about what career path to choose. Whether from guidance counselors, college professors, or parents, the message is always the same: the best job is the one you are passionate about. A job, in other words, should be more than a job – it should be a part of who you are. While often well-intentioned, this idea is built on several problematic assumptions. First, it presupposes that everyone necessarily knows what their passion is, and second, that everyone has the financial means to take everything but passion out of the job equation. In a lot of ways, the heavy emphasis on “loving” or “being passionate” about a job obscures the harsh realities of the labor market – not least the financial constraints of educational debt and the high unemployment rates brought about by the pandemic.
In a perfect world, most people would probably be thrilled to only work with something that makes them happy. After all, being passionate about work can lead to more work enjoyment, less stress, and lower levels of exhaustion. Some research shows, however, that the pursuit of passion at work can also have negative effects on both mental and physical health – particularly when this pursuit becomes obsessive. Individuals who have an obsessive passion for work tend to derive their entire self-esteem from work, as their work is such an important part of how they self-identify. Predictably, then, being too passionate about work can lead to both emotional and physical exhaustion. Especially for young people, who may just be starting out their careers and figuring themselves out, the advice to “do what you love” can be paralyzing in the face of the already daunting task of entering the labor market. In light of this, the seemingly harmless advice to “do what you love” may not be such good advice to give, after all.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that the ingrained notion that we should love our work is perpetuated only by those guidance counselors, professors, and parents who tend to give such advice. To the contrary, employers themselves are increasingly driving the demand for passion at work by suggesting – or, in many cases, requiring – that their employees feel passionate about their work. More often than not, job postings for everything from cleaners to corporate roles list “passionate” as a requirement for applying, leading jobseekers to feel even more pressure to find (or feign) their passion. Even for the most arduous, mundane, and exhausting tasks, employees are now expected to be passionate too – on top of everything else. A simple Google search about passion at work yields numerous results about how employers should address passion, including how to “assess candidates’ passion while hiring” and various corporate strategies for making employees more passionate about their work. This goes to show that passion and love at work are not just individual behaviors or aspirations, but rather that these emotions have also become widely institutionalized in the labor market.
What does it mean then, that work passion is an ideal so prevalent in our society, both among employees and employers? In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, Lindsay J. DePalma contends that our tendency to prioritize the pursuit of work passion constitutes an ideology – one that she refers to as the “passion paradigm.” Along with the increasing individualism and precarity in the labor market, DePalma argues that the “passion paradigm” has taken a strong hold in work across various fields. In essence, DePalma shows how this ideology serves to shift certain responsibilities from the employer to the employee, where a worker’s unhappiness is seen as the result of their lack of passion (rather than an issue in the workplace) and thus their own problem to fix. As such, while there may certainly be benefits to “doing what you love” for some, this ideology also serves to perpetuate oppressive capitalistic structures. By focusing so heavily on love and passion for work, this discourse effectively pits the workers against themselves and their own “passions”, rather than against their employers. While it is a nice idea in theory, these findings show that it is time to re-evaluate the real-life costs and benefits of “doing what you love”.