Main content start
Work and Organizations

Following passion in work can lead to exploitation, inequality

Following one’s passion to find meaningful work may come at a cost. And, even more worrisome, this cost is largely paid by working-class and low-income students and workers. Erin Cech discussed these findings from her most recent book, The Trouble With Passion, during a recent talk for the Celebrating Clayman Institute Authors series. Cech, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and a former Clayman Institute postdoctoral fellow, discussed highlights from her book during the talk, which was moderated by former Graduate Dissertation Fellow Monique Harrison.

Cech shows a shadow side to the cultural expectations in America of following one’s passion to find meaningful work. Cech describes these expectations in a term she calls the “passion principle” – which is the prioritization of self-expression in career decisions. Why is seeking passion through work a problem? Through in-depth conversations with more than a hundred college students and career coaches, an online experiment with employers, and surveys of workers, Cech explains how the passion principle perpetuates inequality and exploitation in the labor market.  

Cech shows a shadow side to the cultural expectations in America of following one’s passion to find meaningful work.

A majority of the students with whom Cech spoke placed passion above financial security and job security when picking their college majors or seeking employment. But following one’s passion came at a cost. Students took unpaid internships, less stable jobs, and sometimes lower paying work – all for the sake of following their passion. For some of these students, unstable work and low pay was not a problem. These students had either a financial safety net provided by their parents that protected them from financial precarity or networks that facilitated new, more stable job opportunities. However, other students lacked access to the protection of such financial safety nets and networks. 

Cech provides a vivid example from this latter group of students. “Thomas” graduated from Montana state with a music degree, and he had ambitions to start his own music lesson business. He had initial success in getting clients, but he was unable to speedily make payments on the $60,000 in college loans he had accrued. He was the first person in his family to go to college, and he didn’t have any financial support from his family. Thomas ultimately gave up on his passion and found another job at a shipping warehouse. Thomas told Cech, “There’s that saying where I’ll lift myself up with my bootstraps, but I don’t have any straps…”  

The problem with passion, however, lies not only with how society differentially equips students (and families) to follow their dreams. The problem also lies with companies themselves. Cech conducted an experiment where she provided employers with fictious job applications, which the employers believed to be real. The only difference between the applications was a sentence where the applicant indicated their “passion” for the job. Cech found that employers preferred to hire applicants who showed passion for the work because these applicants were seen as being willing to take on additional responsibilities at work without an increase in pay. And in fact, Cech found that employers did not recommend higher salaries for these applicants: passion didn’t pay. Employers can extract better and more labor when they hire applicants with passion, but employers don’t necessarily compensate for this extra labor.

So what can be done about this dilemma? Should students follow their dreams? Is it settling to choose stable pay over passion? Cech suggests that the solution to this problem is much larger than individual student choices. Universities should educate students about the exploitation of passion in the labor force, limit employer recruitment for unpaid internships on-campus, and discourage student debt to facilitate students’ pursuits of passion and stable work. Educators should advise their students more openly and acknowledge that all students may not be seeking out their passions at work. Financial stability is a reasonable pursuit, and educators should empower students to pursue their own paths. Employers should consider how to fairly compensate passionate employees rather than exploit them.

For students who are following the passion principle, Cech suggests we need to “shrink the footprint of work in our lives” by diversifying our “meaning making portfolio[s].” Find meaning outside of work—in relationships, doing art, or even improv comedy. Perhaps Cech’s advice can apply not just to students but all of us, too. Finding fulfillment in life can, and perhaps should, extend beyond the confines of school and work.