Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Suffer for Passion

You've probably heard of the book Nickle and Dimed. If you haven't read it, it's as good as everyone says it is. In fact, just writing this is making me want to re-read it. Recently, I read another book by the same author called Bait and Switch, which is based on a very similar premise, but about corporate workers rather than blue-collar ones. The acclaim for this book wasn't as universal as for Nickle and Dimed, but I loved it because it completely confirmed my own experiences as a college-educated, privileged, intelligent, painfully unsuccessful job-seeker. Here's a short description of the book, because I'm feeling lazy:

Bait and Switch highlights the people who have done everything right—gotten college degrees, developed marketable skills, and built up impressive résumés—yet have become repeatedly vulnerable to financial disaster. There are few social supports for these newly disposable workers, Ehrenreich discovers, and little security even for those who have jobs. Worst of all, there is no honest reckoning with the inevitable consequences of the harsh new economy; rather, the jobless are persuaded that they have only themselves to blame.

My favorite part of the book occurred during the conclusion, where Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the rise of "passion" as a prerequisite for corporate work. Not only was it scarily relevant to my own experience, but it seemed applicable to this blog. Here are some quotes:

"Likability and enthusiasm are no longer enough to make one's personality attractive; just in the past few months, I've noticed more and more demands for passion." (230)

"Energy and commitment are so 1995; in the twenty-first century one is required to feel, or at least evince, an emotional drive as consuming as romantic love." (231, emphasis mine)

"The new insistence on 'passion' marks a further expansion of the corporate empire into the time and spirit of its minions. Once, white-collar people were expected to have hobbies...Today's 'passionate' employees, however, are not expected to have the time or energy for such pursuits...It is the insecurity of white-collar employment that makes the demand for passion so cruel and perverse." (232)

Sadly, I've found all of this completely true. And I was actually fairly lucky, because most of the jobs I applied for during my last search were with nonprofits. It's easier to be passionate about an organization that's doing good things for the community. However, supporting the cause was often not enough-- I was expected to display a passion for the details of the everyday work, even if it was something like data entry or mass mailings. The world of work sometimes seems insurmountable to me because I'm just too honest. I could lie about my experience or about my skills (sure, I'm great at multi-tasking!), but faking just seems too cruel. And the idea that everyone else may be doing it just makes it worse. We try to find jobs we love, but we can't expect those jobs to love us back. It's a very rare employer that cares about your job's impacts on the rest of your life.

What I wonder is how this pressure to fake corporate passion impacts our other passions: Sexual, romantic, platonic, artistic, political, or what have you. Can you "evince" passion by day and suddenly switch to real passion by night? I've been told or encouraged to fake various personality traits on the job before. But how, after being fake for 8 hours, are any of us supposed to go home and be genuine to a friend, partner, or family member? People tell me that because I'm trained in acting, I should be great at faking my way through a job interview, for example. But acting is totally different in that it has clear boundaries. Once you start acting off-stage in the rest of your life, how do you know where it ends?

Our relationships with our jobs are so dysfunctional. We've been lied to, cheated, humiliated, disrespected, and abused at jobs we were supposed to be passionate about. (If I mention this, I'm likely to be told the economic equivalent of "boys will be boys".) And yet we still think that after the workday is over, love can solve all our problems. As people living in this era, we're always trying to "process" our relationships and figure them out. But we don't have any established ways to process the pain that our jobs (or lack thereof) may have caused us...until we make some up. As always, the comment box is yours.

(And all this can only lead to anarchy! More about that next time.)


Paula and Skip said...

You got me hooked! I will read that book Nickel and Dimed. Great blog.

Ily said...

Thank you! :-)

asexualist said...

Hm, I might read that, but I'd probably get all depressed over it.

While I'm pushing through college, I'm doing web design and programming work to feed my always-decreasing bank account. But when people ask me if I love it, I tell them I like figuring it out and creating things, but I don't love it enough to want to do it for a job--even if it would make me more money (and I don't believe it's stable enough). I've never faked passion for my employers' sake, although I guess as a still-teenager I'm a bit exempt.

Then again, when I worked at a grocery store for 3 months they were a bit like that. I was like... can't... smile... voluntarily. Argh. So even if I was the fastest worker, I got bitched at all the time.

Ily said...

Aah, the tyranny of smiling...I hate that!

nekobawt said...

tyranny indeed. one of my biggest pet peeves is strangers walking up to me and saying something along the lines of "smile! it can't be that bad!" i nearly came to blows with a coworker last fall when he repeatedly used that line on me and, in fact, it WAS "that bad."

Lia said...

I agree that the expectation of "passion" is particularly cruel in this current economy where workers are so disposable. Workers who aren't paid by the hour, meaning most people in white collar jobs, are expected to be in love with their job and put in unlimited amounts of their own time on them. If not, they can easily be replaced with people who can. One of the many groups on whom this takes a big toll is women with young children. Back in the old days, companies might have expected some kind of "loyalty" from employees, but they were also willing to give some in return.

Ily said...

Trudat on people with kids. Especially single parents! If I was a single parent, I'd want to be home by 5 every day, no questions asked.

fyn scarlet reed said...

Hi, I found your page while looking for asexual experience-centric blogs. I will definitely be back-reading it and keeping up with it in future! For the moment, though, I want to say thanks for the book recommendations. I have not yet entered the shark-infested waters of the employment market, but from everything I've seen close friends/family go through, Ehrenreich sounds exactly right. The psychological toll is probably the greater because it is now unseemly to admit that you are just doing it because you like certain aspects of it. It fosters such an unhealthy atmosphere. And it's interesting how much a lot of 'passionate' workaholics will do just to stuff their resumes.

Ily said...

Glad you found me! :-)