In my 20s, at least half my conversations with friends centered on finding true love: When would it happen? What could we do to make it happen faster? Had it already happened? Often the love in question was romantic. But equally often the love we craved was occupational: we sought the perfect match between our unique selves and the way we earned our living. Collectively, we tried on dozens of new jobs and industries, looking for that elusive “fit.” For many of us, the search is ongoing.
Even in the midst of our angst, we acknowledged our privilege. Conjuring up an abstract Other (most likely older and poorer) whose work paid the bills and nothing more, we knew enough to be grateful for our ability to even aspire to find personal fulfillment and meaning in our careers. Occasional privilege-guilt aside, though, I don’t recall any of us questioning the underlying premise that personal passion, more so than the pursuit of money or status or security, was the ideal way to shape a career.
If I had suggested, back then, that our obsession with pursuing passion made us complicit in structures of racial, gender, and class inequality and helped prop up a system of capitalist exploitation—well, I might not have been invited to very many parties. But this is the (slightly exaggerated) argument laid out in Erin Cech’s new book The Trouble with Passion, and her case is compelling.
Cech, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, draws on interviews with college students and recent graduates (plus, impressively, a whole bunch of additional data sources) to show how something called the “passion principle” guides young people’s career planning. This principle is “the belief that self-expression and fulfillment should be the central guiding principle in career decision-making” and that competing goals like maximizing income or prestige are morally suspect.1 Underlying the PP are the companion beliefs that passion breeds success (because passionate people hustle harder) and leads to a more fulfilling life than the pursuit of material rewards.
So far, so good. But there are dark sides to our collective obsession with passion. First, not everyone is equally well-equipped to obtain a passion-filled career. Second, and more relevant for this newsletter, our passions are socially constructed in ways that reproduce inequality.
Granted, sociologists see social constructs around every corner. But hear me (and by extension Cech) out. Think back on the last conversation you had with a child under age ten. Did you ask them what they wanted to be when they grow up? If so, you might have noted a striking gendered pattern. Little boys disproportionately aspire to be professional athletes, firefighters, and engineers, while little girls imagine themselves as teachers, nurses, or ballerinas.2 As most of us know, the line between childhood ambition and adult career is rarely straight. As those boys and girls grow, they will change their minds again and again as they learn about occupational possibilities foreign to your average five-year-old. But for many of these kids, their evolving passions will remain gender-traditional, albeit in more sophisticated ways.
Is this because boys are innately prone to heroics and feats of athleticism? Perhaps. But much more likely, boys are socialized from a very young age to see some possible futures as more viable and appealing than others. They are taught to value qualities like bravery and physical strength more than empathy and physical grace. It’s that socialization process I have in mind when I say our career aspirations are socially constructed along gendered lines.
For any given individual, passion-seeking is a fine strategy. But when lots of individuals follow their own socially constructed passions, the result is occupational segregation. Women tend to be disproportionately passionate about one set of jobs and men about another set, and this shapes their choice of majors, industries, and jobs. And unfortunately, many of the fields women gravitate toward just happen (heh) to be less prestigious and lower-paid than those that men flock to.3
I buy Cech’s argument. And I think it helps explain much more than occupational segregation. For instance, in my own work on gender and household labor, I routinely hear a variation on the passion principle. When explaining why they do the cognitive chores they do (or don’t do), both men and women appeal to their idiosyncratic preferences, talents, and, yes, passions. Many are convinced that these preferences are not “a gender thing,” but rather “a me thing.” I happen to love meal planning because I personally am type-A, not because I’m a woman. Yet the preferences and passions men and women cite tend to fall along gendered lines: she is obsessive and loves to be prepared for anything; he is laidback and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. Much like our career passions, our household passions and preferences are a function of our social location, of which gender is one primary component.
If you accept this argument and acknowledge that our obsession with self-expression helps replicate inequalities, the logical follow-up question is what to do about it. At the societal and institutional levels, the answer is relatively straightforward, if difficult. We should improve working conditions for all and expand the social safety net so that the costs of pursuing one’s passion and failing are not so devastating. We should ensure that career-counseling is “value-neutral,” rather than single-mindedly addressed at helping students find their passion. We should dismantle stereotypes about what kind of people get to be what kind of workers and expose children and teenagers to a wider range of possible futures. Etc., etc.
Much more fraught is the question of what these findings mean for you, the individual decision-maker who is passionate about chess, or math, or helping kids with special needs, or keeping your home organized. It seems self-sabotaging to avoid pursuing a career you love or to do the household chores you hate most, just because your preferences and passions replicate gender stereotypes. Knowing your desires are socially constructed doesn’t change the fact that you desire.
Cech, to her credit, acknowledges this bind when she admits that her findings do not offer “a clear alternative ethos for career decision-making.” The individual suggestions she does present are indeed somewhat unsatisfying. Her advice that young people should “consider whether passion-seeking is the right approach for them,” for instance, raises more questions than it answers. How could one determine whether it’s best for them to pursue meaning through work versus to pursue work that leaves enough room to find meaning in other parts of life?
Somewhat more compelling is her suggestion that individuals “shift from thinking about passion as a dichotomy” (I’ve found it or I haven’t) to thinking about passion as a “continuum” (this particular job is more or less aligned with my interests and preferences). I would broaden this advice. Not only should we move away from the soulmate model of career decision-making, we should also think more expansively about our very selves. As the oft-quoted Whitman reminds us, we contain multitudes. Who we are and what we desire today are contingent on our past choices and subject to change with our future decisions. To be sure, the number of possible selves for any one person is likely finite. But that doesn’t mean the story we tell about who we are and what we want is the only one possible.
This idea may not sit well with those of us conditioned to valorize self-discovery. But if we have a chance of meaningfully reducing gender inequality, I’m convinced we need to find new, less invisibly gendered ways to understand who we are. A good starting point may be focusing on who we could be.
Two questions/counterarguments to get out of the way: 1) This isn’t just a rich-Ivy-league-kids thing. Cech’s interviewees came from Stanford, yes, but also from the University of Houston and from Montana State. 2) Cech acknowledges the popularity of “elite” jobs in management consulting and finance among college grads but argues that many junior consultants and bankers view these jobs as stepping-stones on the way to more personal, passion-oriented pursuits.
At least, this has been true in my experience. I sincerely hope that recent efforts to, e.g., expose girls to STEM careers will start to change the patterns here (although it’s concerning that we don’t see an equivalent movement to get little boys interested in traditionally female occupations, but I digress).
Neither Cech nor I argues that passion-seeking is the only, or even the primary, source of gendered occupational segregation. But it’s an important factor that I don’t think receives enough attention.