A week ago we talked about young people centering their identities around their work less and less, but a few insightful readers commented about fields of work where the trend is the opposite: you have great passion for your work, it’s a part of who you are, and it bleeds into your life. This is on one hand what many people go their whole lives wanting and never find — work you love! On the other hand, in places like the non-profit world or academia, your very passion, while requisite, can prevent you from recognizing unfair situations, or asking for better pay, or having a life outside of work.
After reading each of these comments I can’t stop thinking about the ways we can lose ourselves, and let ourselves be taken advantage of — even in the most benign, subconscious ways — when we have emotional ties to the work we do. Sometimes it’s worth it, or it’s a fair trade, or even what we want, but it’s definitely something to think about.
These discussions often happen in the context of people de-identifying with soulless jobs, or opting out of the fast lane to take more meaningful work. I have a do-gooder job, though, and still struggle with this–sometimes I think it’s harder because if you fail at your job, you’re failing your cause and the people who depend on it. I need to constantly remind myself that my personal life is most important, that a mistake at work shouldn’t ruin my whole day, that saying no to extra work is ok because I have other values and responsibilities (including grad school!).
Yes, I think in the non-profit world, people identify with their jobs to a huge extent. This is easily exploited, as employers expect us to trade monetary compensation for “meaning,” which usually translates to an unhealthy over-identification with your work. Indeed, the ethos is so twisted at this point that a person who does not over-identify with their work is considered less qualified for it, as if our employers are the ones who are doing us the favor by allowing us to work on weekends, at 7am, at midnight because the cause is so important.
This is absolutely the case in the academic sector as well. “Love” is supposed to make you grateful even amidst financial insecurity (i.e. running out of funding before you finish a PhD, or having to adjunct for $2000/course) and insane demands (staying in lab until midnight regularly, teaching and researching as if both were full time jobs, putting together job application packets with dozens of personalized pages for each listing). But after living on next to nothing in training for a job, and working incredibly long hours, because you are judged on your “love” for and “commitment” to your work, you shouldn’t be so “entitled” as to expect these years of preparation should lead to secure employment.
Some people do get jobs in their fields, sometimes people transition successfully to other fields, and I personally have had some experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything as a graduate student, so I’m not saying it’s a total scam or anything. But I do think the language of “love” and pressure to identify with your work are rhetorical diversions from legitimate economic concerns.