In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

During recent conversations with a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and several mothers of millennial and Gen Z adults, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon affecting many young adults: dismay, disappointment, and a persistent sense of failure at not having a job they’re passionate about.

I’ve heard hints of this from the millennials in my life, but Anne Helen Peterson’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, crystalized my understanding, especially her chapter, “Do What You Love and You’ll Still Work Every Day for the Rest of Your Life.” Her book discusses in depth how cultural definitions of success and workplace expectations have become impossible to achieve, which leads to burnout.

I’ve zeroed in on one of her observations—the fallacy that if you work hard, go to a good college, engage in lots of extracurriculars and internships, and are passionate about your work, you’ll land a wonderful satisfying job. What too many people are discovering is that fulfilling jobs you can be passionate about are rare. Unfortunately, American culture has made “being passionate about work” seem like a realistic goal. In short, young adults have been conned. 

When faced with the realization they aren’t passionate about their jobs and can’t even imagine a job they would be passionate about, they feel like losers. Hidden in the language of “passionate about work” is the warped premise that you are your job. This frustrates and saddens me. Why have we foisted ridiculous standards like “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and “Don’t settle for less” on workers? 

I liked the work I did and occasionally I was passionate about a project, but most of the time my work as a marketing communications copywriter could be called a Moderately Interesting Job. My passions (insofar as I’d use the overblown word, “passion” to describe anything I do) lie elsewhere. Some people are passionate about their work and I applaud them, but far more people are not. Work is just work, and that’s a totally valid view.

I’m definitely NOT advocating that people should aspire to crummy jobs in which the pay is low, the schedule is erratic, there’s no opportunity to advance, and benefits are nonexistent. For decades, too many American employers have gotten away with treating employees poorly. I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for people who are walking away from that work.

But if I were queen of the world, I’d characterize work as one potentially fulfilling aspect of your life, a necessity, but not what defines a person’s worth. Often what people are passionate about exists away from the job. You can’t make a living being a sports fan, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with family and friends. If those activities make you happy, they’re a success—they don’t have to be lucrative. 

If I could, I’d retool American culture’s expectations about work. To me, Moderately Interesting Work or Uninspiring Work with Fun Coworkers or The Job You Don’t Mind Doing are worthy goals. Achievable. Feel free to find your passion elsewhere!

10 thoughts on “In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

  1. Ellen, this is brilliant. I so agree with it. Didn’t there used to be a book called something like, Do what you love and the money will follow? I feel that that is the philosophy that has been promoted since the 80s really. And I’m sorry but it just doesn’t work that way. Maybe the best jobs are a sort of compromise where one can use skills they may have developed from one’s passions, but need to develop new skills as well and blend them together.

  2. I’ve invested far too much of my life in work…and find myself doing so even now. Am lucky that so much of my work has involved learning new things, which is something I value. Yet, If I had to do it over, I would work less. And ask to be paid more.

    • I liked really working (most of the time) and it meant a lot to me, but what I’m advocating is more sense of perspective— your work can define you/be your passion, but it’s OK if it doesn’t. Ditto on paid more though!

  3. I think you’re right, this generation has set their expectations impossibly high, aided mostly by what they’ve been taught. I remember what my grandfather said about starting his dental practice during the Great Depression. He was just happy that he was able to go right to work during such hard times, and earn enough money to support his family. The idea that he should absolutely love his work never even crossed his mind! I’m passionate about writing, but I’ve never made enough money at it to pay all my bills….or even 1/10th of them. So I wrote on the side, and worked at a regular job in order to help support my husband and I. I think we have done young people a disservice to let them believe that if they worked hard enough in school and did all the right things, they’d automatically have a career they love. No wonder they’re struggling!

    • I was surprised to realize how widespread this perception is. Like youI pursued creative writing on the side. Marketing communications helped pay the bills.

  4. I really feel for the latest generation… I’m glad I’m not wading through what they are. Too much information, and much of it useless in navigating life. God bless ’em!

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