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Career Advice for Newly Minted Workers

Beware the 'hope economy.' Flee if you hear 'do what you love.'

Shannon Rupp 1 Jun

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

An American academic has written a book that may just be the perfect piece of career advice for this spring's small army of graduates: Do What You Love: And Other Lies about Success and Happiness.

Of course the title of Miya Tokumitsu's book is a play on the 1987 self-help tome that empowered the greed-is-good Yuppies: Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow.

And with that, I hope we can declare that the neoliberal propaganda of the 1980s is almost over, if not the consequences of it. (Dare we hope this will prevent people trying to resurrect their fashions too?)

As Tokumitsu points out, the Do What You Love (DWYL) concept was part of the elaborate web of ideas supporting the economic changes that have led to today's ever-growing income gap. The elegantly written book examines the cynical manipulation behind the DWYL creed. (I'm pronouncing it "dull.")

The philosophy has helped turn any discussion of the real reason most people work -- income -- into something crass. And work has been reinvented as a narcissistic journey of self-fulfillment rather than a necessity.

It would be hard to miss the DWYL philosophy underpinning the explosion in free internships (which are illegal in B.C.) and other sorts of free labour being done for "exposure." The implication of DWYL is that it is somehow tacky to work for a paycheque. As I followed her argument I found myself wondering why those creepy corporate-success tchotchke factories hadn't come up with some mug-able slogan like, "Love means never having to say you want overtime."

Find your inner Vanderbilt

News and entertainment media, which are big beneficiaries of DWYL, are saturated with this idea. Tokumitsu gives a nod to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who repeats the career advice his mother gave him when he was a freshly minted Yale graduate: "Follow your bliss." Of course, he fails to mention that his mom is millionaire Gloria Vanderbilt, who comes from a long line of robber barons. The Vanderbilt fortune stretches back to the 19th century and Edith Wharton's Gilded Age New York. In other words, Anderson's bliss will always be bankrolled by his trust fund.

Seen in that light, the one-percenters who fill the university podiums as commencement speakers -- and almost invariably mention DWYL -- take on a sinister hue. Their inspirational words are always shot and shared online, so we can all consider the DWYL mantra in the mouth of somebody like a Steve Jobs. A guy who was legendary as an abusive boss. And let's not forget he got rich literally off the backs of children, who staffed his factories in China.

She contrasts Jobs' enthusiasm for DWYL with some hard numbers in the U.S. Over the last 10 years, wages for workers under 34, with BAs, have shrunk by 15 per cent (while tuition fees have skyrocketed). And she notes the many disappointed workers with graduate degrees who are caught in the "hope economy." They buy an education in the hope there will be a well-paying job at the end of it.

A brigade of those hopeful PhDs, who are doomed to temporary jobs as poorly-paid sessional lecturers, have been making headlines all over North America. And recently a hopeful American law school grad sued her alma mater when her degree failed to get her a job as a lawyer, despite the school's rosy marketing. (She lost.)

Tokumitsu argues that the cri de DWYL does double duty because it also serves to devalue workers who do jobs that are not considered "lovable." These are the sorts of jobs that have genuine social and economic value -- things like driving a bus, waiting tables, or fixing the plumbing -- but are often underpaid precisely because they are seen as common and not special enough to be "lovable."

Because work's just too much work

As a piece of propaganda designed to devalue labour, you can't get more cunning than DWYL. If your job requires years of expensive education that contributes to you having a distinctive personal identity -- such as a professor -- then you should be satisfied with working for the love of it. But if your job makes you just another essential cog in the economic wheel, then you're ordinary enough that anyone could replace you (presumably) so you have no right to claim a good living from your labour.

The implication is that you always have a choice to find a job about which you can be "passionate" enough that it will be profitable. Because if you do what you love, the money will supposedly follow.... Of course, the corollary of this is that if the money didn't follow, you must not have loved your work enough. Either way, you are the failure in this scenario, not the economy.

Once you read this book you won't be able to un-see evidence of the destructive DWYL message everywhere. Just look at the job ads for any industry and you'll notice a recurring demand for "passionate" workers. I assumed it was just another example of how marketing culture has infected everyday speech with hyperbole and gush. But Tokumitsu points out that the demand for "passion" is a kind of code-speak -- it implies the job will be underpaid and require a lot of self-sacrifice, including long hours.

Perhaps because the author has a PhD in art history, she has a fine eye for the telling detail. She turned up a Craigslist ad for a house cleaner that required applicants be "passionate" about cleaning. She notes drily that in another era an ad for a house cleaner might request someone be "responsible."

She also explores how we're bombarded with messages about what work is and ought to be via TV shows like Enlightened -- about a corporate executive who has a psychological collapse and loses her place on the corporate ladder -- and The Good Wife. The latter is a cynical masterpiece that tracks the corrupting nature of commerce as the Good Wife of the title travels from being a sweet, naive homemaker to an unapologetically ruthless lawyer.

And Tokumitsu reminds us that for all this romancing the job, work is called work for a reason. Unless you're so wealthy that your labour is little more than a paying hobby done at your leisure, there will always be circumstances in which you hate the job. Tokumitsu reports Michelangelo's unintentionally comic rantings in a poem where he gripes about having to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It's boring! Uncomfortable! And there was paint dripping on his face for years! He might have quit, but even geniuses didn't argue with popes in the 1500s.

Corrective lens

Tokumitsu illustrates how DWYL is a brilliant philosophy for shafting everyone who works for a living, partly because it's seductive. The slogan is so optimistic and appealing that the young-and-hopeful will waste tens of thousands of dollars on useless courses that will supposedly lead to lovable work. Followed by years of poorly paid, or even unpaid, labour to support that dream.

I read the slim volume twice, and I can't say enough good things about it. Except for this: I predict no one will want to read it.

There's a good, economic reason that we rarely see essays as long and insightful as this one making it to print: it's not comforting, which means it's not marketable. Worse, it's infuriating. Who wants to pay $24 for a book that will send them into a rage for hours, and possibly days? (That's what critics are for: we read it so you don't have to.)

Still, it's probably the perfect grad gift for newly minted workers: one that prepares them to look at the world as it is, not as they hope it will be.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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