Workers should also seek happiness outside the workplace © Yacobchuck/Getty Images

It has been called the Great Resignation. Beneath the data about people quitting their jobs as the coronavirus pandemic eases run some familiar stories. People are fed up and burnt out. Freed from the daily grind, they are also out to find happiness and fulfilment in new careers.

“With all the extra stress of going to the office, it’s a treat for myself to do exactly what I want to do. Now I really have to fulfil my creative passion,” Lisa McDonough told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, after quitting her job as a gallery manager to start a shoe business.

Similarly, Jennifer Kidson enthused to the Toronto Star about her switch from communications to film editing: “Had the pandemic not happened, I might have continued to make excuses in my head and said, ‘Oh, I can explore my passion next year.’ But when the pandemic hit, it was, ‘No, it is now or never’.”

I wish them well. But there is a dark side to this pursuit. The pandemic and lockdown have forced many to take stock of their lives, sociologist Erin Cech of the University of Michigan tells me. “There seems to be this sentiment that, ‘security be damned, we’re trying to find meaning’.” Yet, she points out in a thought-provoking new book The Trouble with Passion, many of those encouraged to pursue their dreams through work lack a safety net.

Her surveys of US students and college-educated workers revealed that a majority rated passion above income and employment security as a central factor in career decision-making. But it is rarely acknowledged, she writes, “that the people who can even entertain the idea of taking such risks typically already enjoy the greatest economic, racial and gender privileges”.

The promise of fulfilment at work contains other dangerous elements. I’ve written before about how younger recruits’ conviction that they will find autonomy and self-realisation in their jobs creates unrealistic expectations. Like the first argument between a couple who married in the hope of endless happiness, the first boring day at work, balancing the books or fact-checking a share prospectus, can come as a shock. Worse, young workers may blame themselves, overcorrect by throwing themselves even more ardently into their work and start burning out.

Wall Street banks, following in the footsteps of big law firms, have started automating what they deem “grunt work”, such as valuation modelling. “The goal with this is to allow younger bankers to do more and more of the meaningful, and less and less of the menial,” Dan Dees, co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, said in September.

The view that bright young people have a right to choose to take on highly stressful, highly paid jobs, despite the risks, is valid. But why try to insist that those roles should be particularly meaningful?

One of the insights from Cech’s research is that the simple pursuit of stability, income and status, which economists used to presume motivated all jobseekers, has been overtaken by what she calls “the passion principle”. Among college-educated people in particular, a desire for self-expression and fulfilment now guides career decisions. Low-income and first-generation university students face peer pressure to choose the “right” jobs — the ones that offer meaning and fulfilment, not just the secure, well-paid ones.

Staff goodwill has long been a lubricant for white-collar work. It is one reason companies obsess about employee engagement surveys. Of course, happiness at work is a worthy goal. It ought to lead to better outcomes and products, if staff are properly managed and looked after.

But Cech points out that passion can also be a mechanism for workforce exploitation. It is a cruel paradox. “Doing work for self-expressive reasons may feel to passion-seekers like a way to escape the pitfalls of the capitalist labour force but . . . doing so directs one’s private sense of joy and excitement to the benefit of one’s employer,” she writes.

What are the solutions? Clearly, workers should seek happiness out of hours, too. Building a broader portfolio of interests — and seeing decent paid work as a way of funding them — seems sensible. One benign effect of lockdown has been to redirect people people to such pastimes.

Regulated financial institutions impose a mandatory two-week break on staff so they cannot hide fraud or embezzlement. I am tempted to suggest employers should grant workers two weeks a year, on top of holiday, to explore alternative interests and offset any temptation to over-invest in their jobs.

Cech believes a combination of meritocratic ideology, neoliberal ideas about individual responsibility and follow-your-passion career advice helps explain persistent inequality. She favours collective or structural efforts to reshape the labour market and improve the quality of work.

But she also offers a way out for individuals asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Rather than an occupation, she writes, why not answer with a set of collective actions (friend, activist, community organiser), or an adjective? “Adventurous. Irreverent. Eccentric. Relatable. Impactful.” Anything, in other words, except “passionate”.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

Letter in response to this article:

Rather than fulfilment, let’s settle for job quality / From Stephen Overell, Manchester, UK

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