“Follow your passion” is a popular mantra for career decision-making in the United States. Passion-seeking seems like a promising path for avoiding the potential drudgery of a life of paid work, but this “passion principle”—seductive as it is—does not universally translate.
The new book The Trouble with Passion probes the ominous side of career advice to follow your passion. This data-driven book explains how the passion principle fails us and perpetuates inequality by class, gender, and race; and it suggests how we can reconfigure our relationships to paid work.
In the interview below, author Erin A. Cech explains some of the key insights from the book. Cech is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, and her research investigates how seemingly benign and taken-for-granted cultural beliefs reproduce workforce inequalities.
Your discussion of the passion principle is centered around educated white-collar workers, but it negatively affects a much wider range of people, particularly those who can’t compete for prestigious but poorly paid jobs. Can you explain?
Erin Cech: Although the idea of passion-seeking is extremely popular among college-educated and non–college-educated workers alike, the opportunities for, and the consequences of, “following your passion” can vary dramatically. Increased automation and outsourcing have meant that workers without a college degree are much less likely to have access to jobs with tasks that people might conceivably be passionate about. But even with a college degree, working-class and first-generation college graduates are more likely to end up in low-paying unskilled jobs when they pursue their passion than their wealthier peers. In other words, passion-seeking is a goal for most workers, regardless of class background or education, but there are wide discrepancies in who is ultimately able to parlay their passion into stable, well-paid jobs.
Equally discouraging, even workers who are in jobs they aren’t passionate about may still be expected to pretend that they are. A sandwich board I saw recently in front of a Starbucks read, “Our PASSION is to serve YOU.” Casual perusal of help-wanted ads for service jobs like front desk clerks shows that many workers are expected by employers to engage in their jobs as if they were passionate about them.
Who benefits from the passion principle?
EC: The passion principle was almost tailor-made for wealthy and upper-middle-class young adults. They are more likely to have access to what I call “springboards and safety nets”—the freedom to “wait it out” until a job in their passion comes along without worrying about defaulting on student loans, or to volunteer or take an unpaid internship to get their foot in the door and trust that their family can help them make ends meet. They have access to parents’ social networks to help them find jobs. The passion principle presumes access to resources and cultural capital that are really only available to middle- or upper-class workers.
But it’s not just well-off passion-seekers who benefit most from the passion principle. Employers of passionate workers do, too. As part of my research for the book, I conducted an experiment to see how potential employers responded to job applicants who expressed different reasons for being interested in a job. Not only were passionate applicants preferred over applicants who were dedicated to the organization or liked the city where the job was located, but employers preferred passionate applicants BECAUSE they would work hard at their jobs without expecting an increase in pay. In other words, employers knowingly exploit the passion of the people who work for them.
Is there any way to quantify what it means to like your job? What does it mean to enjoy what you do, and how much is that worth?
EC: Putting a numerical value on the worth to workers of a passion-aligned job would be difficult, but I found that a substantial proportion of career aspirants were ready and willing to sacrifice a good salary, job stability, and leisure time to work in a job they love. Many said they would willingly “eat ramen noodles every night” (the plastic-wrapped kind, not the hand-pulled kind) and “work 90 hours a week” if it meant they could follow their passion. Many recent college graduates I interviewed indeed sacrificed a great deal for their passion. One Stanford graduate, for example, left a prestigious pre-med fellowship to follow her dream to be a YouTube content creator. She took an unpaid internship at a video creation company hoping there would be a full-time job waiting for her. The job never materialized. Instead, she did contract work on days the company needed her. She didn’t regret her decision, but the financial instability made her constantly nervous.
Is this a uniquely American issue? Do people entering the workforce in other countries face the same pressure to follow their dreams?
EC: While the book focuses on the U.S., the passion principle is salient in many other postindustrial contexts. In countries where the white-collar economy has become more precarious and where cultural expectations of individualism and self-expression are popular, the passion principle probably looms large, as well. This is especially the case in Anglophone countries (Canada, Australia, U.K.) and western European countries like France and Germany. Other scholars have found that well-off career-seekers in Japan are starting to prioritize meaningful work, too. But the biggest differences between passion-seeking in the U.S. vs. other countries are the consequences when it doesn’t work out. Compared to other postindustrial countries, the U.S. has very limited social safety nets (unemployment, welfare, etc.) to protect passion-seekers who stumble. So, while the popularity of the passion principle is certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon, the particular risk involved is.
How has COVID-19 impacted the way people evaluate the pros and cons of their jobs?
EC: When the pandemic hit, there was buzz in academic and media circles that employment instability would reshape how workers prioritize their jobs. To investigate this, I re-fielded my survey in October 2020. Suggesting the stickiness of the passion principle, workers’ prioritization of passion was just as salient during the pandemic as it was prior. And, in fact, college-educated workers who experienced a job loss or furlough during the pandemic were actually more likely to believe in the passion principle than workers who had the same job. The pandemic, in other words, certainly did not undermine the passion principle, and may even have amplified its popularity.
How did the passion principle become so entrenched in our society? What are the social mechanisms that help keep it in place, and how can we start to dismantle them?
EC: Ironically, one of the most important factors in the rise of the passion principle over the last three decades is the decline in the availability of stable white-collar work. This is not the white-collar workforce of our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Workers with a college degree increasingly face job precarity and uncertainty and can no longer count on their employers long-term, even if they do stellar work. At the same time, employers are getting more demanding of white-collar workers: They expect longer hours and more productivity than ever.
This same historical period also saw the explosion of ideals of individualism and self-expression: We now expect to have opportunities to express ourselves in nearly every part of our lives, from our mobile phone covers to the “skins” we add to our web browsers.
These trends set up a curious tension: Workers feel pressure to live up to demands for overwork in a precarious labor market on the one hand and cultural expectations for self-expression on the other. The passion principle seems like a perfect solution to this tension: It allows people to use their paid employment as a site of meaning making, while providing the motivation necessary to meet the overwork demands of white-collar jobs.
Dismantling the passion principle would thus require dismantling two of the most steadfast things about American society: the precarity of the labor force, and the ubiquity of cultural expectations of self-expression. The reason the passion principle is so popular is thus also the reason that it is so difficult to address.
What do you see as a possible solution?
EC: Educators, parents, and employers need to expand the options young adults and career aspirants see for the role of work in their lives. Passion-seeking should not be a moralized expectation, and we should be reflective about the privilege of passion-seeking. Educators are particularly bad at promoting the idea that students should follow their passion and “figure out the employment stuff later” (even I was an evangelist of the passion principle before starting this project!). Second, the reason the passion principle is such a powerful force of inequality reproduction is because passion-seeking is so risky for many. Expanding the social safety nets for workers and reducing the crushing burden of student loan debt would go a long way to make passion-seeking less risky.
Finally, we need to champion collective solutions to the problems of paid work. The passion principle is ultimately an individual-level solution—it helps individual workers navigate the constraints of the labor force and avoid the potential drudgery of paid work. But it does nothing to address the factors that make paid work feel like drudgery in the first place. Collective solutions—championing better work hours and working conditions, better benefits, and less overwork—would not only make paid work more manageable for passion-seekers but also make work better for workers who labor in jobs that hold little potential for the expression of passion.
What advice would you give to current job seekers?
EC: They should seriously consider whether passion-seeking is the right path for them, given their holistic definitions of a good life. Work that can be neatly contained into predictable hours, that provides freedom to engage in meaningful hobbies outside of work, and that allows time for friends, family, and volunteer work may be equally if not more desirable goals for many. If job seekers do wish to prioritize passion, I encourage them to diversify their meaning-making portfolios. By this I mean, find places outside of school and work to center meaning-making and self-expression. To put it bluntly, the capitalist labor force was not designed to support us in our personal growth and sense of fulfilment; it was designed to increase profit and value for the owners and stakeholders of the places we work. By understanding the power of the passion principle, we can be better equipped to envision alternatives to it—for our organizations, for our institutions, and for ourselves.