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‘Do what you love’ could be contributing to the Great Resignation

“Do what you love,” is no longer just advice.

High school students learn early on that their future careers should be passion-driven. Self-help books counsel job searchers to start with reflection on what they love. And Hollywood films teach people, in romantic fashion, to aspire to work that is intrinsically satisfying and expresses our authentic selves.

Researchers call this way of thinking about work the passion paradigm, and studies show it has become pervasive in modern societies.

The passion paradigm emerged in the 1960s. During this time, there was widespread questioning of social and cultural norms — especially among youth — which helped develop a new way of thinking about the role of work in human life.

This trend was spearheaded by the scholarship of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who applied his theory of the “hierarchy of needs” to the modern workplace. In Eupsychian Management, Maslow argues that work should be thought of as a key source of personal growth and self-actualization.

Maslow envisioned a world where individuals derive deep satisfaction from their working lives, and who treat their work as a sacred activity.

Since early 2021, I have conducted interviews with over 90 professionals and managers in Toronto, to learn how they think about work. Although there are exceptions, what the data shows, in general, is that Maslow’s theory has increasingly become common.

The downsides of the passion paradigm

Because the rising popularity of the passion paradigm has coincided with both increasing economic inequality and a steep decline in the power of unions, it has attracted a host of criticism.

Sociologist Lindsay DePalma contends that the passion paradigm encourages workers to romanticize their work while blinding them to the unequal distributions of power that characterize their working lives.

In her book Work Won’t Love You Back, journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that loving your job is a bad idea because it is a recipe for (self)exploitation.

Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, maintains that the passion paradigm has fuelled a new religion — “workism” — which is responsible for causing burnout and depression even among high-wage earners.

These commentators rightly fear that the passion paradigm can (and does) lead workers to accept harmful working conditions, poor treatment from their employers and unrealistic expectations from themselves — basically to put up with what they shouldn’t.

When people aspire to love their work, they may prioritize work at the expense of other important aspects of life — family, friends and hobbies. An overvaluation of work can lead people to see those who cannot work as lazy, stupid or undeserving of concern.

And yet, despite these evident pitfalls, the passion paradigm can also have the opposite effects. In fact, I would argue that it is one cause of what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation.”


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