Why Doing What You Love Is Not Enough

Telling workers to "do what you love" only ends up blunting demands for fair pay and benefits.

By Nausicaa Renner

Sarah Jaffe’s recent piece “The Myth of ‘Do What You Love’ ” in Dissent brings to mind a poignant quote from an interview Studs Turkel had with a steel worker:

I got chewed out by my foreman once. He said, “Mike, you’re a good worker but you have a bad attitude.” My attitude is that I don’t get excited about my job. I do my work but I don’t say whoopee-doo. The day I get excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker.

If only all workers could be so levelheaded about the emotional demands placed on them by their employers. Indeed, Jaffe, spotlighting Maya Tokumitsu’s recent book on the subject Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, explains that the myth that “each individual’s specialness will guide him or her to work that he or she enjoys and that also happens to support, at the very least, an upper-middle-class existence” is insidious. The myth gives permission to employers to demand emotional labor from their employees—and underpay them—and to society to forget those who are in unlovable professions.

Jaffe connects Tokumitsu’s argument to the service economy, where the smile on your face becomes part of your job. In particular, she writes about the fast-food workers’ movement for a living wage. That movement, she writes, has been impressive in its assertion that workers cannot love their work without appropriate pay: “By refusing to give in to that scorn and demanding that work be recognized as worthy of pay whether it be lovable, admirable, or not, these movements remind us that at the end of the day, we all work a job in order to get paid.”

An article in The New York Times responding to Tokumitsu misses the point when it suggests that instead of doing what we love, we should be okay doing what we hate, if it serves a virtuous end, or connects us to something “higher.” By intellectualizing, Gordon Marino forgets that the myth of Do What You Love is not about an individual’s relationship to work, but a justification for poor treatment of workers. In Jacobin last year, Tokumitsu wrote, “In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL [“Do What You Love”] may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around.” It obfuscates legitimate worker demands with its logic: If you find what you love, it won’t feel like you’re doing work at all, so why would you want decent pay or flexible hours? And if you aren’t doing a job you love, you can blame your malaise on your own choices.

Indeed, Jaffe and Tokumitsu find the roots of this ideology in our individualist culture: the idea that if we “love the work enough, we will make our way to the top.” I wonder if its source could be broken down a bit more. Is emotional labor something that employers demand of workers—or something that the government promises them? The myth of DWYL is only part of a much larger framework governing the working poor: the myth that with enough hard work and the right attitude, everyone can rise out of poverty. Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People tend to believe that you get what you deserve, even though they also know that inequality is growing. This myth is reflected not only in how people talk about their careers and how the rich (read: Republicans) speak about the poor, but also in our policies on inequality. In many states, receiving welfare is dependent on working a certain number of hours a week, thanks to Clinton-era welfare reform. Do What You Love doesn’t even enter the picture for single working mothers who face this requirement.

Do What You Love functions this way even for white-collar workers, whose employers require extreme commitment, even if it’s enforced informally: to work extremely long hours, not take the vacation time allotted to them, and minimize maternity leave. As Maya Tokumitsu points out in Jacobin, the ideology of DWYL is often spread by people like Apple CEO Steve Jobs. With Apple, Jobs attempted to “aestheticize work” and thereby eliminate the concept of work altogether. But of course Apple’s bottom line is what benefits.

As Jaffe notes, “the desire to do what we love is a deep and real one for most people.” This is what makes it so hard to unseat. The ultimate solution should be policy that protects workers, and acknowledges that they may not be living to work, but working to live. And a step back from those welfare reforms that demand work as an empty gesture of worthiness.

Nausicaa Renner is web editor at Boston Review.

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