Since they were 18, Demi has worked for the same store, at six different locations. They started as a part-time cashier, but have since moved into a leadership role — “the point where I'd start to consider myself well-paid, essentially,” Demi says. The downside, Demi explains, is that the position is retail, meaning that the schedule can be fairly erratic, but the “biggest upside is that it's well-paid and I don't need to take it home with me.” Now 24, Demi makes $50,000 a year, has zero student debt, as they decided to leave school to focus on work, and appreciates the quality of life their job offers. “I recently moved and I now live by the cutest farmer's market in the world that’s open six out of seven days a week, and I can do most of my grocery shopping there because I can afford it now,” Demi says, adding that their life mainly centers around investing time in their relationship, accumulating paid time off to go on trips, and exploring cool local spots with friends. All this is made possible by their job: “I can not just afford to do it, but I have the time and the energy to do it as well,” they tell us. But not everyone in their life sees it that way; Demi adds, “I feel like I've been defending my job since I got it.”
“The whole idea that work has to be where you get meaning out of your life and fulfillment, exclusively, is very inherently capitalistic and like, very inherently where we are as a society,” Demi says. At the end of the day, Demi’s job doesn’t come home with them: It’s not their passion, it’s not their source of identity — it’s just a necessity, a tool that allows them to have a fulfilling life beyond work.
Demi’s experience, though, of seeing their job as just a job, feels anomalous. Embedded in the consciousness of the American workforce is the question: If you’re not pursuing your so-called “dream job,” what are you doing with your life? For some time now, our jobs have taken on a dual purpose. Not only are they theoretically supposed to provide us access to healthcare, food, and shelter, but they are supposed to reveal something about who you really are — not just at work, but at home, too. “Pursue your passion” and “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” might be well-intentioned job-hunting advice and Instagrammable quotes, but encouraging people to follow their hearts and hustle makes it seem like all there is to life is work. It feels true in the sense that individuals have to work more just to get by, yet also feels it shouldn’t be. Despite the talking point that there’s more to life than jobs, working a job that’s well-paid but not all-consuming is a rarity.
Demi describes extended family making quips about whether or not they’re still working at the store; they respond that the job is still doing what they need it to do: pay the bills. Besides the pressure that family and friends might put on a person to find the “right” job, there’s so many other pressures associated with work that it’s almost impossible to unravel them: If you attend college, there’s pressure of picking a major that leads to a job and the pressure of student loan debt that, for some, includes debt-related racial inequality. There’s paying bills and finding a job at all amid staggering unemployment numbers. If you’re a parent or caretaker, there are additional barriers to finding work and staying in the workforce. And on top of the lack of accessibility, over-work and overwhelm, and inequities embedded in the American workforce, there’s the burden of feeling like you must do more than just have a job — you must love your job. “There's a moralization of that idea that the best way to be a person in the labor market, especially if you have a degree, is to find work that you love and deal with the kind of sacrifices that that entails,” says Dr. Erin Cech, Assistant Professor in Department of Sociology at University of Michigan and author of The Passion Principle: How the Search for Self-Expressive & Fulfilling Careers Reproduces Inequality, explaining that there’s this sense that if you’re not doing work you find fulfilling, you’re somehow selling yourself short. “It’s such a narrow way to think about making meaning in our lives,” Cech adds. “Why is work the place that we're supposed to find meaning?”
Cech’s work focuses on something called the “passion principle,” which is the idea that the best way for people to make career decisions is to center self-expression and fulfillment. Cech’s research points out that while adherents to the passion principle recognize that all jobs contain tedious tasks, they also believe that, if work aligns with their passion, their working hours will still “fulfill” them, and so all of the negative aspects of their jobs — from being overworked to being underpaid — are somehow worth it. In this way, the passion principle potentially prevents valid criticism of precarious employment situations, Cech states in her research, as it “diffuses these critiques of the capitalist work structure—critiques which might, under other circumstances, kindle collective demands for shorter work hours, more equitable pay, or better work-life integration.” While “pursuing your passion” has never been a possibility for everyone, our culture’s larger fixation on “dream jobs” has impacted perception of what work means for everyone, including those people who are “lucky” enough to land them, and those who find another path.
Sometimes, the difficulty in pursuing a dream job isn’t that the work itself is unattainable, but rather that it doesn’t exist in a way that’s equitable and sustainable. A 25-year-old diversity and inclusion manager, who asked to remain anonymous, says that her true dream job — writing — can only exist as freelance work. So, she writes in addition to her day job. “I think this is very specific to Black women, especially: I don't think our dream jobs really exist,” she explains, noting that she’s worked at publications she loved, but felt they weren’t inclusive and didn’t allow her to cover what she wanted, due to predominantly white audiences or predominantly white newsrooms. A dream job, she says, would not only pay her well, but be on a diverse team in a diverse environment — a true rarity.
While her current job is completely different than what she thought she’d be doing, she says, much of her writing and reporting work aligns with her diversity and inclusion work. This includes developing ways to reach a more diverse applicant pool, crafting messaging about diversity and inclusion in the company’s About Me pages, and writing statements in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the murder of George Floyd, and what will potentially happen in the upcoming presidential election. She could see herself in this role long-term, and the company knows she’s also a freelance writer. “I also like the stability, and the pay, honestly,” she says about her job. “I don't think I'd get six figures at any media company at twenty-five. So for them to actually pay me for the work that I also felt like I was doing at every media company that I worked at — kind of unpaid. I do feel, like a lot of Black employees, diversity and inclusion just ends up falling on you, no matter what your role is at the company that you work at. And so at least I'm now getting paid to do that work.”
When paying bills or being fairly compensated are presented as luxuries in the American workforce, rather than fixtures, it’s worth looking at where the urge to make our jobs into more than just work comes from in the first place. It wasn’t always this way. According to Cech, we don’t have the same access to the kind of job security and stability in America that past generations did. While this might have led to people viewing jobs in a utilitarian way, instead, Cech says some people have told her: “If I'm not guaranteed a job, I might as well find a job that I love.” Then there’s the cultural component. In the United States, accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, Cech says, America’s individualist spirit coupled up with its capitalist drive and a driving expectation for making identity-driven choices in all facets of life became the norm. “And so you have this kind of perfect storm of this expectation for self-expression,” Cech says. But, she adds, the labor market is not set up to take care of us in our meaning-making — it’s set up to make money for people who own the business and organizations that we work for.
For Tiffany, a content marketer and writer with an income ranging between $50,000 - $70,000 a year, the job she ended up in started as a matter of opportunity: She went to school in a small town that had a significant amount of poverty and lack of local opportunities, and didn’t finish her degree due to undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and ADHD-Inattentive. Because she wasn’t allowed to complete driver’s ed in high school and couldn’t afford gas, she had to find a walkable or remote job. “I will admit that the beginning of my career was very rough,” Tiffany explains. “I was living off $6,000 per year without any government assistance or health care.” Now, she considers her work and the skills it has given her more of a means to an end than a passion. “I got really burned out in the past 10 years because there's such a capitalist focus in our culture that revolves entirely around ‘what do you do?’” she says, noting that she sometimes feels guilty because she knows, for some people, her job is the dream job. But she just wants enough money to live and do things she really wants to do. Her passion is animal rescue, and she uses her writing and marketing skills to assist the animal rescue community.
“I have felt the pressure throughout my life, but especially in my younger 20s, to commit to the career that would apparently decide my worth as a human being,” she says. “I don't dream of productivity or of work. I dream of making a difference where I can and leaving the world better than how I found it.” Even as she deals with chronic illness struggles, she explains, she’s in a much better place than her younger self. “It definitely took a long time to reject the feeling that my job needs to be the most important characteristic of me, but I am much better for it.”
A job that’s well-paying without the emotional identification that’s long been aligned with “meaningful” work almost sounds far-fetched, because it’s not just our perception of work that needs changing: Not all meaningful work is paid, and certainly not paid well, nor should everything one enjoys become a necessary source of work and income. “One of the things that I think is important to emphasize here is that the reason that people find the idea of passion seeking in their job so compelling, in part, is because of this deep recognition that work, especially white collar professional work, takes up far more hours than 40 hours a week,” says Dr. Cech. “And they are expected to be dedicated to the work that they do. And they think that if they're personally committed to it, that will be much easier.”
Now, as the allure — and even possibility — of a dream job fades completely, workers are reevaluating and responding to the increasing demand on their time and energy. They know that the answer to professional problems isn’t always as simple as just finding another job, or prioritizing work-life balance — something that still puts the onus on workers to adjust their lives and expectations around their jobs. People know that they aren’t the ones who have failed just because they aren’t finding fulfillment in their careers — that shouldn’t always be a job requirement, anyway. Instead, it’s the system that’s failed them; a system that aligns income and job titles with ambition and worth, and puts the burden on employees to orient themselves around work while chipperly reminding them that’s not all life is about.
It’s important that the solution isn’t reliant on individuals taking action, Cech says, asking them to change their prioritization, but rather, to think about this collectively: Even people who love their jobs should consider how they can support other workers within their own organizations and through social movements and supporting legislation, Cech says, so the burden of repairing the workforce doesn’t just fall on those who are already struggling. But it’s also important to recognize that it’s okay not to love your job at all, and simply to see it dispassionately, and not a reflection of who you are on the inside. As Demi says: “I don't even have a dream job. I don't dream of laboring.”