Erin Cech's Trouble with Passion
Professor's research shows career passion as a bargain we make with the devil
A friend recently pointed me to a talk by U of Michigan Sociology professor Erin Cech, detailing her research on how notions of “passion” encourage exploitation of workers and perpetuate inequality. It’s an hour worth your time if you think a lot about these things. Here, I’ll highlight just two of her findings that jumped out at me:
Those who prioritize “passion” in a career aren’t doing it out of wide-eyed dreaminess: it’s their rational attempt to bargain with a work world they know will suck
Specifically, as Cech puts it (emphasis mine):
“Choosing a self-expressive occupation was understood by many [college] students as highly rational, because it was the only guiding principle for career decision-making that promised to insulate them from the drudgery they believe plagues workers in the labor force.”
Basically, most people know that most jobs are naturally to be hated and will exploit you, but are hoping to be one of the lucky few who end up not minding as much by finding a job they’re “passionate” about. The passion story isn’t a high ideal that we truly believe, but our way to bargain with a life that we’ve already decided has to suck—a life organized around the institution of a job.
Of course, it hasn’t occurred to many of us (until recently, at least) to question whether we really need to organize our lives around such an institution. Do we need to have a job our whole adult life, as opposed to meeting our needs in other ways? But I digress.
Employers seek “passionate” candidates because they’re easier to exploit
The sad irony of this bargain is that jobs labelled as “passion paths” will then use such a status to justify themselves in blowing the doors off any boundaries employees try to place between work and the rest of life. “When you’re passionate about the job, you find the time,” is a refrain I’ve heard my employers say as they cheerily squeeze more hours from us.
One study from Cech looked at why employers gravitated to “passionate” applicants. Was it because they’d be more fun to work with, or raise morale? Lol, no. It’s because they’re more likely to be “hard workers” and, more importantly, “take on extra responsibilities without an increase in compensation.” All for the same salary they offer “non-passionate” employees.
As someone constantly praised at my job for being “passionate” and having “heart”, this makes me feel like a sucker. In light of this information, my advice to anyone would be to project “passion” in job interviews and then become confrontational once they get the job. A job, if you must be involved in one, is a dance of each party getting as much as they can out of the other. Remember that.
Sarah Jaffe explores a lot of these notions in her book Work Won’t Love You Back (which I’m planning to break down more in later posts). In the meantime, it’s fascinating to see Prof Cech put some experiments and hard data to them.