The passion economy: Future of work, or a privilege of the rich?

The passion economy: Future of work, or a privilege of the rich?

There have always been people passionate about what they do for a living and those who see their job as… well, just a job. But in the past few years the scales have begun to tip, as especially younger generations question the prevailing idea that personal wellbeing is somehow detached from our professional lives. In other words, we’re no longer expected to have ‘just a job,’ but to find something that fulfills us, that we love doing, that gives us purpose.

But the emergence of the passion economy also brings new, and urgent, questions: Is a marriage between work and passion achievable for everyone? Is there truly room for purpose in an economic paradigm that — despite the speed of technological change — still rides on 20th-century ideas? And, above all, is our quest for professional passion really worthwhile?

Daniel Markovits, a professor of law at Yale Law School and author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, makes the case that passion isn’t really available to unprivileged groups, since they need to focus on surviving before thinking about thriving. More controversially, Markovits also argues that the economic elites, too, are barred from finding passion as they’re ‘forced’ into prestigious positions in order to maintain status and high-standard education for future generations.

Not everyone shares Markovits’ point of view. In his book The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Adam Davidson identifies a new era in the world economy in which virtually everyone can thrive financially by exploiting one’s unique values and passions. We interviewed both Davidson and Markovits to find out whether passion should really be the leitmotif of our modern economy.

Passion at work: a generational issue?

Markovits paints a bleak picture of the labor market’s trajectory. “In elite jobs, you have to work longer and longer hours; in non-elite jobs, you are more and more surveilled and manipulated and less paid,” he says. Jobs themselves are getting worse, less meaningful, and that’s driving people away from them.”

In this regard, both authors see the quest for passion as a generational issue: “What you hear again and again is younger people really caring about giving meaning to what they do with their lives,” Davidson says. “They want to work for companies they believe in and do work they believe in, and I think that’s great.” He points out that young workers of today are simply not willing to conform to the norms of their parents’ generation, where you were expected to remain for decades in “crappy” jobs due to a sense of obligation. “People complain about them [the younger generation] and say they’re spoiled,” Davidson says. “Well, screw that. We were the suckers.”

Another point of agreement between the experts is that the pandemic acted as an accelerator, extending what was previously seen as a young-people attitude towards work to other groups of society. “Covid didn’t create trends, but it advanced them for many, many years,” Davidson explains. “One way in which that manifests is recognizing that work is a part of life and not ‘all’ of life. As society gets richer, people are able to make more precise choices about the kind of life they want. For me, the passion economy is not about maximizing income. It’s about maximizing your overall life satisfaction.”

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So why are we talking about this today?

Our quest for worklife passion is due to the social and economic developments that have taken place since the beginning of the 20th century. As prosperity increased, so did people’s freedom to make individual choices about their lives. “Basically, the more surplus you have, the more time you don’t have to spend just getting basic calories, and the more options there are,” Davidson says. “So the number of people who’ve been able to even consider ‘what do I want to do’ or ‘how would I do it’ has increased fairly steadily over the last 200 years.” Davidson gives the example of a classic New York corporate job in the 1950s — or a traditional factory job anywhere in the industrialized world: “You’re sacrificing a lot of short term pleasure for long term certainty.” Today however, Davidson points out that, due to a much more volatile labor market, financial stability isn’t always guaranteed — no matter how hard you work. “So as employment has been less consistent, the deal is not as good a deal. People are now able to consider what they are trading away by not being passionate.”

But what does ‘passion’ mean in this context? To Markovits, it’s not something we have ‘discovered,’ but something we’ve invented as a society. “Today, being passionate about your work is to have chosen your job because you believe it’s important,” he says. “But consider how we think about marriage today: 300 years ago nobody chose their partners — marriages were arranged. That doesn’t mean that people couldn’t be passionate and committed to their marriages.” Markovits goes on explaining that the difference today is that we associate passion with freedom of choice, and that phenomenon has spilled over into our professional lives.

However, he also points to the potential perils of seeking passion at work, as it risks opening the door to exploitation. “In a way, the worker’s passion becomes the employer’s asset, and this is what gives employers an incentive to invoke passion: to shame those who don’t have it and to stoke it in those who do.” The solution, Markovits says, would come through workers capturing more of the gains from their labor, which would mean they also take ownership of their attitudes towards their own jobs. “If they aren’t passionate, but simply find the jobs a useful way to get income that enables them to live the rest of their lives, then they can take this distant attitude without being shamed for it. And if they are passionate, then they can embrace their passions without worrying that they will be exploited.”

Is passion for everyone?

“It’s not that we should aim to be passionate about work. But the question we want to ask ourselves is ‘what work do we think is worth doing?’” Markovits says. But what happens if you “don’t have enough privilege to act on the answer to that question?”“We think something is worth doing, but it doesn’t pay enough to keep our family with food and housing. So we do something else that does pay enough,” he says, which suggests that some professions might indeed only be available to a small and privileged group. However, Markovits adds that “no rules apply 100%, so it’s not that only children of rich parents can succeed. But it’s a huge advantage: if your parents are rich, you need a lot less talent.”

Davidson admits that passion at work is “definitely not available to everyone,” but he also said that it’s certainly available to far more people than the ones who actually take advantage of it. Rather than seeing passion as a privilege of the few, he says: “We can think of three groups: people who are doing it, people who could do it and aren’t, and then there are people who can’t do it.” Davidson sees the most potential in the middle group, those who could find passion but aren’t. “There’s more educated people who’ve gone to college but who are still working in a more rigid structure and not really taking ownership of their career, and then there’s a group that’s probably socioeconomically below them.” The latter group, Davidson says, still have the possibility to find a place in the economy where they can take advantages of their uniqueness, “though it probably won’t be wildly high paying,” he adds. These are the ones who have this high potential to find a unique strength that they can exploit in order to be passionate.”

To Davidson, “it would be good if there was an easier path to secure income for a lot more people. But I do think that offering unique value is always going to be better than offering standardized value. Why shouldn’t we all be unique?”

Markovits, though, questions whether developing one’s unique skills in order to thrive in the new economy should really be necessary: “You want an economy and a labor market and a society in which ordinary people can thrive and can do meaningful work and be economically secure,” he says. “Also, a lot of skills that are very valuable are not unique: I’m a good law teacher, that’s a valuable skill, but it’s not unique. And so, I shouldn’t try to become a unique law teacher, but a good law teacher.”

Is passion a privilege of the elite?

In The Passion Economy, Davidson writes that we’ve traditionally associated professional passion with financial instability. But according to him, pursuing one’s passion is precisely the way to thrive financially in today’s economy.

However, if there are indeed people who simply cannot afford to pursue their passions, and even those whose true interests lie far outside the realm of their working lives, should we as a society continue to promote passion as a professional virtue?

To Davidson, pointing at the evolution of the economy and the future of work, there isn’t really a choice anymore. “One hundred and fifty years ago, very few people thought of education as something important. But then, the economy changed and it became clear that it was increasingly important,” he says. “I see an analogy to passion: it didn’t use to matter but now it does, so people should work at it. I think in the future we’ll have a better language and way of thinking about it.”

He says, “the better you are at identifying the unique thing you have to offer — and I try to point out in the book it might not always be fun — the bigger the chances for success.” In the 20th-century economy, you just had to answer to external demands of society — that was the average way of becoming successful. But, Davidson says, today you really do need to identify what you’re good at. “And it’s certainly possible that you do it and hate it and don’t feel passionate about it,” Davidson says, “I just think it’s a lot easier to feel passionate if you’re matching the things that you’re uniquely capable of doing with the people who most value those things.”

As Davidson puts it, finding one’s unique abilities and passions — and exploiting them — might not be an easy task, but it pays off in the long run: “In America, being white is helpful, being rich is helpful, and probably being male is helpful. But I still think [passion at work] is available to a lot of people who don’t have true privilege other than the right mix of education and skill,” he says. “My general view is that pursuing a more passion-economy job does take on more risk in the short term, but it’s probably less risky in the long term. Because once you figure it out, you can respond to challenges more easily, you can respond to major shocks in the economy more easily.”

Do we really need to be passionate at work?

Passion isn’t only about what the job is, Davidson points out, It can also be about the skills and abilities you bring to a job.” He uses an example of a mother who worked as a cleaning lady: “She hated it, but she’s an immigrant, and she had become a mentor to all of these other immigrant cleaning ladies, and that was really meaningful to her,” he says; “It’s a reminder that, even when you have very few options, it’s possible to find meaning.”

Markovits agrees with the satisfaction that comes with a job well done: “When people think about passionate work, they think of a small number of particular things that are associated with what rich people do. But to do work that you care about, that you think is meaningful, and to try to do it well because you care about doing it well… People don’t need to be privileged to have that feeling.”

Though Davidson warns about ‘a job well done’ becoming a means of manipulation, as in why do we need to create better jobs and improve workers’ conditions if they can already be satisfied by doing their job right? People’s satisfaction stems from a sense of trust in the organization they work for, a sense of belonging, and a sense of autonomy. To Davidson, people would benefit not only from seeing the outcome of their work but also from being recognized for that outcome — but that also hinges on improved working conditions. “One of the choices more people get to make now is to live a passionate life, which I think is good. It’s definitely not good enough because not everybody gets it, but it’s a very good first step.”

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Editorial Coordinator Europe @ Welcome to the Jungle

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