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!