Image by Jurrian Persyn (http://www.flickr.com/people/oemebamo/)
There has been a lot of talk about a recent article in Slate which is a rather harsh critique of the “Do what you love” idea about work. There is a great critique of this article at the Unexpected Mogul that I encourage you to read. But here is my critique, which is from a slightly different angle.
For the author of the original article, the “do what you love” mantra is said by elites completely oblivious to the realities of most people’s lives, and it devalues workers and their work. A choice quote from the article:
“In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?”
I do know that many people who use this mantra are completely blind to their privilege. However, there is another way to look at this, which I’m going to outline here. It is the idea that in fact, “doing what you love” could be the most radical, empowering idea about work that every single person should be able to embrace.
I think I need to have a little preamble before I dive into why I think this could be so radical. First, I have privilege, privilege I hope that I am not blind to. I know that my ability to pursue work that I love (which I pretty much have for my entire life) is totally based on the fact that I grew up with educated parents, went to good schools, and got into a good college I could attend without having to work or take out loans. My father was an independent business owner for many, many years, so I knew the model.
I do think (and have always thought) that for the current model of work to be compassionate and equitable, strong unions are critical. My perspective is that everyone, regardless of education or ability, needs to be able to work a reasonable amount of hours (giving plenty of time for leisure, family, hobbies, community, etc.) to gain compensation that gives them a comfortable life. And if they can’t work, they need to get a reasonable stipend so they can live a comfortable life. A combination of strong unions, government policies that ensure full employment, and a strong social safety net should assure this.
But, frankly, the United States is not Europe, and never, ever, ever will be (at least not as it is currently arranged.) And besides, Europe is quickly moving backwards. Unless a large chunk of the US either has brain transplants, or decides to secede (my preference) we’re never going to have this combination of unions, full employment and a strong safety net. The US has this weird soup of greed and individualism that will make this impossible. So given this soup, what’s the solution? To my mind, the solution is to use capitalism to destroy Capitalism.
Little “c” capitalism (or perhaps one could use the term “free markets” but that’s kinda co-opted – I’m not sure of another word – basically small biz) is you and me, little guy, leaving the wage slave life, doing work that we love, whether it be growing food, or making bread, or roasting coffee, or cooking meals, or building houses, or helping people with relationships, or helping people get healthy, or walking dogs, or building websites, or one of a zillion vocations. And maybe we have apprentices (that we pay.) And, if everyone, instead of going to WalMart, or McDonalds, or whatever, bought stuff we needed from you and me little guy, the power that big corporations (big “C” capitalism) have over us, and over our work lives, would disappear.
Let’s face it. For the majority of people in the US, work is something they do to make other people rich. Even creative types – writers make publishers rich, actors make movie moguls rich, athletes make team owners rich. In some cases, if people work for the government, or nonprofits, they do actually work for the good of the people. But mostly, people work so that a very tiny percentage of people can get obscenely rich. For some it does provide reasonable compensation, but for many, it leaves them in poverty, even if they spend almost every waking hour working.
This is not the work I want to value. And it’s not the work I want anyone to be doing (unless, I guess, if they really love making other people rich.)
I’m not saying this is easy. Getting from here to where everyone (I mean every single person) is able to pursue a vocation doing something they love is a very, very long journey. I’m not sure we’ll get there before we do ourselves in by other means (global climate change, for instance.) There is a lot of complexity (for instance, what about all of those gadgets we love? Who cleans the streets?) There is complexity both for individuals (cost, convenience, etc.) as well as the society as a whole.
Really, because of the industrial revolution, and technology advances, we all actually don’t have to work a whole lot for all of us to be just fine (food, health care, housing, etc.) It’s not something that there is a lot of historical precedence for. In fact, history since the dawn of agriculture is filled with societies that exploit the work of one group or another (even in the name of “the proletariat”.) But it’s not impossible – that’s the path I want us to be walking, and it’s the path I want to help as many people as I can walk it, privileged or not.