Photo: Linx Entertainment/flickr

Are you one of those people for whom your job is also a passion? Would you be ready to accept a pay cut only for the pleasure of keeping the job you currently have, along with the people you work with? According to a poll conducted last year by recruiting firm Monster, those who earn most are also those most likely to fall into that category. We shouldn’t be surprised. High wages often come with jobs wholeheartedly chosen, complete with responsibilities, influence and recognition. However, for the vast majority of workers, work is more like a chore for which you get paid, too often with little opportunities for moving up and even less grasp on how your firm conducts business or on how things are done.

“Do what you love, love what you do”? Nice motto. But these words hide a two-way push which both reduces the value of the work accomplished by those who live by it, and dehumanizes others, despite how essential they are for the latter to exist. On the one hand, we can ask journalists to become their own photographers, or even pay with eternal gratitude citizens to do work. In the case of caregivers and child-care workers, the vocational dimension tends to reduce the sympathies of many when it comes time to address their requests for more money or better living conditions. On the other hand, what could be the passion of a garbage collector, a parking attendant working night shifts or the person bolting screws on an assembly line? These people, along with the invisible mass of workers in developing countries, don’t have the luxury of being able to count on an easily accessible social mobility. And without this mobility, it’s hard to image one’s self-being able to earn a living from one’s passion. In the United States, the American Dream is still just an illusion for a good chunk of the population.

More than a simple motivational mantra, the call to “do what you love” is a human resources strategy. Employees who love what they do will feel that they play an active role in the company and will be more inclined to identify with it, to devote themselves to it and, by doing so, to increase their productivity. Need to work weekends to finish a report? No worries! Stay until midnight to make sure you give excellent service? My pleasure! More and more people feel that they have to check job-related emails on weekends, or take their laptop along on holiday. For some companies, that means getting rid of work schedules all together and let their employees leave whenever they want, for as long as they want to (so long as the work still gets done). What happens then? In a still uncertain economy and in a society in which work is such a core feature of identity, many people simply don’t dare take time off at all, for fear of not be able to get back on top of everything afterwards, or of being seen as taking advantage.

A few weeks back, IRIS was talking about the need to shrink the working day, both for our own well-being and to better the economic system. Though the emphasis put on loving one’s work may be hiding it, the capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the labour force: you are paid because a profit is made from your labour to enrich someone else. To live, and live well, on one’s passion is far from being a generalized privilege, and even further from being a generalizable one. Low-wage jobs are often less enriching, even though they are sometimes vital. What we need to do is not to change our attitude regarding work, but change work itself to make it less alienating, regardless of wages. And, there we go again, that might just mean working less.

This article was written by Eve-Lyne Couturier, a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

Photo: Linx Entertainment/flickr