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!

What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Olga*, 42, was an architect in the Ukraine and now she is a homemaker. Gina, 28, was a civil engineer in Venezuela and now she is a server. Deqa, 32, was an accountant in Somalia and now she works as an assembler. When I tutor these adult English Language Learners, I often consider what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I were the immigrant. What work could I do?

I’ve made my living as a writer and a teacher—work that requires a good command of the language, both written and spoken. As a marketing communication writer, understanding connotation (e.g., ‘cheap’ vs. ‘inexpensive’) and nuance (e.g., the perspective of suburban mothers vs. that of urban mothers) were key to being persuasive. Since project management was a big part of my work, I developed schedules and budgets and coordinated the efforts of several other team members.

As a teacher, I’ve needed to use clear, simple wording and examples that would help someone comprehend a word or concept. I’ve had to be quick with alternative explanations, too. When I tutor immigrants, I am also teaching American culture as well as English language so I must remember not to make assumptions about anybody’s worldview or beliefs.

If I lived in Ukraine, Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or any of the other places my students come from, I wouldn’t know those languages and cultures well enough to make a living as a teacher or writer. My M.A. in English would be irrelevant, just as Olga’s, Gina’s, and Deqa’s degrees are.

When I review my non-language-based skills, my list is short and sounds like the work my students do: cooking, cleaning, factory work, or stocking merchandise in a store. With time and a bit more knowledge of language and culture, I could take care of children or infirm adults. As my language improved, perhaps I could be a sales clerk, wait tables, or drive a cab.

But professional work in which I use my communication, analytical, and organizational skills would be closed to me. What also would be lost to me is the respect that goes with having a professional career. If I were an immigrant with poor language skills, most people would assume I was stupid and uneducated—nothing more than the cleaner or babysitter I appeared to be.

If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t want to be pitied for the challenges of learning a new language and culture (and neither do my students). I would have chosen to emigrate. Or maybe I’d be a refugee who didn’t want to leave but needed a safe place to start over. Either way, before I moved, I would have been aware that it’s hard to learn a new language and work in a foreign country—the bare minimum needed to survive. If I missed my homeland, was lonely, felt disrespected, or experienced outright hostility, it would be mine to deal with. In time, I could hope that safety, security, and a better quality of life would come.

When I work with student immigrants, I keep in mind that it’s hard to do what they do, even though they chose it. I admire their grit, persistence, ability to work toward long term goals, and overall resilience. I wonder if I would have the same qualities if I were starting over in a new country?

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.

Change is Certain

Crystel - Age 6. 2008

Crystel – Age 6. 2008

Whether it’s our kids growing up right before our eyes, the seasons changing, snow needing to be shoveled, or Christmas coming. It’s happening whether we embrace it or not.

Change is certain in all that surrounds us. Work people coming and going. A new job, or a new assignment. People moving in or out of the neighborhood.

I’ve decided to embrace change. It doesn’t mean that it is without tears.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that my boss was leaving for a new assignment within our corporation and would be returning to his home in Texas. Later that evening I cried. I was still crying in bed when Crystel ran upstairs to jump up and down on me. I explained to her that I was having a personal moment. That didn’t deter her exuberance. It gave her more fuel.

I was crying because this boss was so healing for me. The company I worked with prior to this one was nothing short of terrible. It was a challenge to make it through each work day. I started laughing during the day because it was the best way to get through the hours. I became an observer of what was going on around me. For many reasons, I chose not to quit the job but to see how long I could last.

Crystel - Age 14. 2016.

Crystel – Age 14. 2016

My goal became to keep my dignity, my truth, and to be proud of my actions, regardless of what was happening.

It almost seemed like the company wanted me to quit. What I said to myself was, you people don’t know who you’re dealing with. Where I’ve been. Where I’ve gone. You could never make my work environment as bad as what I have lived through.

My current job is all that that job wasn’t.

By the time Crystel got done jumping up and down on me, I had decided to be thankful for the 1 ½ years I had with this boss. With that decision, I felt lighter, happy, and joyful. I went to work with a bounce in my step, and a smile on my face.

If nothing else, change is certain.

Celebrating Retirement

Last week I celebrated one year of retirement. “Celebrated” is a key word. While I was happy to retire last August, I felt a little undercurrent of worry—I didn’t exactly have a plan. For many people, not having a plan sounds like what retirement is all about. But to me, making such a major and irreversible move called for a blueprint. As in what I am I going to do for the rest of my life? Which suddenly seemed more finite.

Retirement is an Identity Change

Retirement is a major identity shift akin to starting a career, marrying a spouse, or becoming a parent. You see yourself differently. A wise friend advised that it might take up to a year to figure out retirement, and it has.

Who Am I Without My Profession?

Americans often identify with our professions. I have worked since I was 16, and I babysat before that, so paid work has been part of my life since I was 11. I went to some effort (getting a graduate degree, moving across the country three times) to launch my career—first as a teacher and then as a copywriter. In 1979, when I started teaching college full-time, the working world wasn’t welcoming to women, and I had to fight to belong. By the time I started copywriting five years later, I had toughened up and the workplace was less openly antagonistic. My early experiences shaped me, and having a career became an integral part of who I am.

My other roles—wife, mother, sister, and friend—have remained constant in retirement. But last August I wondered, “What does it mean to let go of the career I worked so hard to have? What happens to all the experience and skills I’ve gained?” Today, the answer is that I’m still a writer—an essayist and blogger, and I volunteer as a marketing communications copywriter.

Me in retirement--just kidding--it's Rose Totino

Me in retirement–just kidding!

That’s how I see myself, but early on when I mentioned my new status, I learned that the word “retiree” conjures up someone who’s out-of-touch and lives for coupons. Now when I meet people, I simply describe the work I do.Ellen in Hawaii








People Openly Wonder, “What do you do all day?”

It’s a legitimate question. A year ago, I too wondered how to create a life that is fulfilling and fun. What exactly was I going to do with my time? The answer is more of everything I did before. I sleep half-an-hour longer. Most days, I walk for an hour because now exercising doesn’t have to be a trade-off (i.e., either I exercise or I have fun).

Housework, cooking, and grocery shopping still exist in retirement. I’m determined not to become obsessive about any of that, but now I might take an extra five minutes to dry the pots and pans after I wash them instead of letting them air dry as I did before. Why not? I have time.

Camping in WI

Camping in WI

Today, I read, write, travel, socialize, and volunteer more. Probably the main difference is that now I have more time to explore or learn new things in classes at the University of Minnesota, the Loft, or community education.

I wasn’t planning to retire last August at 61; I expected to work two-and-a-half more years. However, when a stroke of luck gave me the opportunity to leave early, I did. I am very grateful to be retired now. Eventually old age will find me. But for now I’m enjoying the gift of retirement. I want to use my time well.

When Small Talk Isn’t Enough

Have you ever attended a work outing (holiday party, going away lunch, happy hour, etc.) only to be stricken with a compete lack of conversation starters?

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You recognize that you should make an effort to be friendly and get to know the coworker sitting next to you who’s twice your age/half your age. But aside from work, you have nothing in common. Maybe he’s a vegan and you like meat. Especially bad-for-you meat like bacon and sausage. Or she’s a fashionista and you’re hopelessly wardrobe-challenged. Moving next to someone you do know and like would be too rude . . . especially if you’re trapped in the middle of several tables that have been shoved together at the bar.

Small talk is easy. Weather and sports are perennial favorites, but weather can be dissected to the point of boredom in less than five minutes. Sports talk can be stretched to last 10 minutes, or 15 minutes—tops—if you filibuster about your favorite team’s merits and shortcomings. But then what? It’s time for ‘medium talk’—conversation about a moderately interesting but inoffensive topic that can fill the next 15 minutes. Not politics. No controversial current events. Nothing you care deeply about.

If you’re both parents, you can ask about your coworker’s children. If you ask enough questions, that could be good for 15 minutes, as long as you avoid the advice giving or getting landmines.

Vacation plans might be a topic, unless you’re talking to the youngest person on the team who gets paid so little that he can’t afford to go anywhere.

If there’s a big difference in your ages, weekend plans are a nonstarter. Middle-aged people are likely to be going to their kids’ games and mulching the back yard. Yawn. Young parents are usually chasing toddlers, catching up on laundry, and hoping to have one grown-up moment alone together. Been there, done that. Or not ready for that world. Single twenty-somethings are probably hitting the bars or doing a gaming marathon. Snore.

Pets are a good topic, if both of you love and own animals. After you’ve covered the particulars of his or her pet (Dog? Cat? Breed?), ask what’s the best or worst thing their pet does. That leads to storytelling and you may not even have to talk—just nod and laugh.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why am I torturing myself with these tedious conversations? Next time I’ll be sick or have some vague ‘appointment.’” While some conversations with coworkers will never be fascinating, people can surprise you. I recently discovered that a coworker likes craft beer as much as I do and he told me about a new brewpub. Someone else had been to a city I’m hoping to visit. Maybe you’ll find someone who’s as geeky as you are about vintage clothes, gardens, music or whatever you’re interested in.

Take heart. Next time there’s an office event, you might find that medium talk will lead to a genuine connection.

Have you ever faced this dilemma? How did you handle it?