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!

L O V E was TATTOOED on his RIGHT KNUCKLES

love_hateH A T E on his left.

“Do you have any questions?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he paused. “What’s this ‘no loose jewelry’?”

I shut the new employee production orientation guide.

The manufacturing company where I work as a Human Resources Manager is a packaging manufacturer. We make paper and plastic bags. On the plant floor, hairnets are mandatory. Another rule is no rings, loose jewelry, or loose clothing.

He added with dismay, “My dad made me take my nose piercings out and they have already closed.”

Large black circles were stretching his earlobes. He had post piercings under his lip.

“Usually, the Production Manager, decides what’s acceptable,” I said. When I saw the look on his face, I quickly added, “But, since that’s your dad, I’ll have the Quality Manager come down and look at you. She’ll tell us what’s okay.”

He sighed with relief.

“I’ve got long hair but I keep it under my stocking hat.”

“When you’re around the machines you need to keep it tucked in. Just like if you’re wearing a hoodie you can’t have the strings dangling. It’ll pull you into the machine,” I warned.

He shuddered. “I need to use my hands to do crafts.”

While we waited for the Quality Manager he told me that he would be turning 19 next month. This was his first manufacturing job. He wanted to make sure that he understood the rules because he wanted to do everything right.

“You need to be here on every scheduled work day,” I said. “No lates, no absences.” I repeated again for emphasis, “You have to be squeaky clean for your first 90 days. Is there anything you have scheduled?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “I’d like to have February 14th off. I’m old fashioned like that.”

I shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll make sure they have it down that you are approved for that day off.”

The Quality Manager came in the room. She looked him over.

83589021“What other piercings do you have?” I asked. Then I shook my head quickly and put up my hands. “I don’t need to know about any of the piercing you have under your clothes, just what would be showing.”

“I have a piercing on my eyebrow that I’d like to keep on if I could,” he said. He pulled out an Altoids box and opened it. He reached for a straight pin.

The Quality Manager asked him to put it on. She studied him for a moment, then determined that it wouldn’t be in danger of falling into a machine and that his safety glasses covered the piercing.

She explained that it wasn’t just about the piercings falling into the machines but also the customers that came through the plant.

I spent 5 hours in orientation with this new employee. He changed me. If I would have passed him on the sidewalk – he adorned with his tattoos and piercings and dressed in all black – I would have been anxious.

But this young man was courteous, respectful, caring, and wanted to present his best self. Underneath all the ‘stuff’ he was gentle.

I told his dad the next day that sometimes it takes a few years for our outsides to match our insides. I know it did for me.