A friend of mine was recently let go from her day job, an underpaid, creative position at a company where cool flows like ineffable alternative currency. She told me that as the proverbial ax was coming down, someone in the room was expounding on the need to keep things positive. The positive-minded consensus in the room – the room where she was getting fired – was that now she would be free to pursue her real passions. By firing her the logic went, the company had made it so she could look for a job that she really loved.
Of course, they would provide positive references.
According to Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-Sided, although the idea of making money via a “positive mental attitude” (PMA) originated much earlier, the positive thinking spiritualism that pervades business culture today became dominant during the corporate downsizing of the 1980s and ‘90s when around “thirty million full-time American workers lost their jobs” (114). Amidst this dismal climate for workers, they “were encouraged to think of themselves as salespeople” selling what business management prophet “Tom Peters termed ‘the brand called you.’”(114-15). Your job was no longer merely a way to trade your knowledge or skills for money and security so you could survive. Your job and your life became cultivating your personal brand. Add to this positive-minded self-marketing ethos the rise of the yuppie, social media and the dominance of the lifestyle brand and it is now possible for your entire life, your whole life style, to be lived in the service of your work in the name of “love.”
“There’s little doubt that ‘do what you love’ (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time,” Miya Tokumitsu argued in Jacobin a few years back. Particularly in fields that are “highly socially desirable” there are “masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love.” As Tokumitsu points out, the DWYL credo simultaneously manufactures and relies upon a kind of insidious false consciousness; if people love what they do, if they believe in it, they will work harder in worse conditions for less money (or no money at all).
While none of us wants to spend our time toiling at a job that makes us miserable, the tradeoffs for doing what we “love” have grown increasingly convoluted. Moira Weigel notes in Labor of Love, yuppie culture of the 1980s gave
rise to the idea that everyone should work – and should love working – nonstop…Today do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life no longer sounds very reassuring. Since the 1970s, falling wages have meant that everyone has to work more and more, whether they love it or not (italics original, 164-165).
You’ll never work a day in your life can easily be turned into you’ll always be working and much of the time for free. This paradigm is one in which workers are taught to see themselves as an extension of the brand of the company where they work and a personal brand of their own that supplements the company brand. No doubt, this is why it is common for potential employers to ask you to share your Instagram or Twitter handle along with your résumé. The line between work and life has become blurred to such an extent that it is possible to spend one’s entire existence diligently building one’s personal brand simply by living, earning surplus capital for a series of higher-ups along the way. So pervasive is this self-as-brand ideology, a writer for Forbes warns, “The question is no longer IF you have a personal brand, but if you choose to guide and cultivate the brand or to let it be defined on your behalf.” Failing to “curate” a personal brand is a failure to perform the extra unpaid labor required to get and hold onto a job.
Of course, the idea of doing what you love didn’t start out as innately exploitative. One might even argue that DWYL falls in line with Karl Marx’s vision in The German Ideology (1845) of a society in which it is “possible for [one] to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” It’s all in a day’s work, right?
As neoliberal capitalism has expanded, though, DWYL has become one arm of an ideological bait and switch, what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “the new spirit of capitalism” in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. This “new” spirit of capitalism
triumphantly recuperated…egalitarian and anti-hierarchical rhetoric…presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations characteristic of…corporate capitalism…–a new libertarian spirit epitomized by dressed-down ‘cool’ capitalists such as Bill Gates and the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (56).
It is possible to name any number of successful contemporary companies that tout a hip “authenticity” and a veneer of anti-corporatism as central to their brand identity. Business owners can now seamlessly capitalize on this image as a marketing tool to draw in customers who want to signal the meaningfulness of their lives through their aesthetic-consumer choices and as a way to get younger workers to work for less of the profit share with fewer guarantees about what the company owes them as workers (A living wage? Healthcare? A permanent position? A desk?).
Millennials, in particular, have taken up this cool capitalism as their new ideal for work. As Fast Company notes,
Despite struggling with debt, recession, and the jobs crisis, millennials—who will account for 75% of the workforce in 2025— are not motivated by money. Rather, they aim to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable. More than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.
Of course, there is nothing innately sinister about wanting to live meaningful lives or to do good, including when we are performing various forms of (paid) labor. Still, the idea that the meaningfulness of our lives can be produced by benign capitalist innovators who are just trying to help us follow our passions should be a suspect one. Additionally misleading is the implication that nobody is working for money anymore. The rapidly rising rent is still due, after all.
Nowhere does the dream of doing what you love seem more ideologically pervasive than where I live on the West Coast, the birthplace of countless brands and marketing agencies built around the philosophy of making work seem like anything but. The doctrine of the authentically lived life and the greater social good pervade business culture from Silicon Valley to Seattle. Take as just one example outdoor outfitters Patagonia. A visit to Patagonia’s “Culture/Life” page reveals their workplace ethos. It begins,
If you care about having a company where employees treat work as play and regard themselves as ultimate customers for the products they produce, then you have to be careful whom you hire, treat them right, and train them to treat other people right.
Sounds positively swell, right? Who doesn’t want to play at work and treat people “right”?
Yet, as Nick Paumgarten notes in his profile of Patagonia co-founder Yvon Chouinard, having an anti-corporate ethos at the center of your company produces a marked ambiguity for the people actually working for you about what their real obligations are labor-wise. Paumgarten worked for Patagonia one summer and left his seasonal position a month early to go skiing. He notes,
Of the two women who’d hired me, one was angry and the other understanding. Their reaction embodied an intrinsic schizophrenia at Patagonia. Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in. But it was also a company trying to claw its way out of a hole.
As opposed to older corporate models with clearer cut if more soul-destroying requirements for efficacy and productivity for workers, the new culture of work is one in which laborers are encouraged to “treat work as play” and to see their work as an extension of themselves. Yet, if we are all supposed to just “play” at work then on what basis do employers justify hiring and firing us? With profit-motive squarely hidden behind an ethos of the greater good, it’s possible to convince workers that there is no power differential between themselves and their bosses and for their bosses to believe it, too.
In her books of essays The Alchemy of Race and Rights, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams outlines some of the assumptions middle and upper class white liberals often make about the “avoidance of power and a preference for informal processes generally” (147). Using the example of signing a rental lease, Williams explains that while informality and ambiguity in legal relationships are often read as a sign of trust and authenticity by well-off white people, this lack of formality can also be a way to deny another person their right to enter into formal legal contract or even to be taken as a subject with rights at all. She notes that the “language…of informality, solidarity, overcoming distance, sounded dangerously like the language of oppression to someone like me…” (148). A key point here is that the formality of contracts can be used to protect people from situations in which their social oppression would make them easily exploited, abused, or dispensable. In conditions in which formal obligations and rights have not been clearly delineated, people with less social power become reliant on the benevolence of those with more power not to exploit them.
Williams’ point is instructive for thinking about the “new spirit” of capitalism, one in which the language of “flexibility” and “authenticity” are combined with the result that worker’s obligations at work become nebulous instructions to “play” or “be creative” or “innovate.” Lurking just below the surface is the reality that our jobs can often rely heavily on our ability to correctly embody the company ethos both inside and outside of work, something markedly more difficult for women and people of color to perform correctly in a corporate culture invented and idealized by “cool capitalists” who are almost exclusively white and male. Without workplace obligations and rights that are clearly and precisely articulated and agreed to from the start, it is much harder for workers to demand that their rights be upheld when it is decided by the higher-ups that they’re not living up to their end of an ambiguous agreement. Informality can easily slide into “she just wasn’t a ‘good fit” with little recourse on the part of the worker to disagree.
The anti-corporatism of the contemporary corporation thus has an emperor has no clothes surrealism to it for many workers, as the soft fist of “love your job or else” echoes through open-plan offices across the nation. A special kind of contingency pervades already precarious forms of labor in which one’s ability to be “positive” in the face of job insecurity and deregulated working conditions can determine whether one keeps one’s job or not. This is perhaps especially true for younger women who are expected to be endlessly adaptable yes-women who take on the brand ethos, remaking themselves in the image of the place they work to try to secure a non-contingent position. As Madeleine Schwartz observes, “Countless job descriptions repeat their demands: ‘flexible, energetic, creative, and enthusiastic’; ‘flexible, enthusiastic and highly motivated with a positive attitude’; ‘enthusiastic and flexible learners, capable of both taking direction and working independently.’” This fact about contemporary forms of neoliberal exploitation of the so-called creative class is hardly a new observation at this point. What has been less often fleshed out is how DWYL goes hand-in-hand with the crumbling boundaries between your work and your “lifestyle” as capitalism eats its own tail and we all morph into idealized producer-consumers.
Geographer Jamie Peck critiques the “crass celebrations of hipster embourgeoisement” in which “the choices made by [the] Creative Class…right down to the selection of kitchen utensils and hairstyles…are validated…” (745). Nowadays our jobs, our relationships, our core selves are increasingly determined by our consumer choices and preferences and our ability to broadcast those choices as evidence of our goodness, character, employability, desirability, and even personhood. In the era of positive-minded lifestyle-as-identity, if it turns out one of your employees doesn’t really love their job – if you think they don’t love it quite enough – you can just fire them.
As for my friend, three months on from being fired she is still looking for a full-time gig where she can put her skills and education to good use. She tells me she is realistic about the available options; she doesn’t expect to love her next job – she just wants to be good enough at it that she can pay her bills and maybe have a little left over at the end of the month. More than finding a job she loves, she wants a job where she feels respected and secure. She would love, she says, to feel stable enough in a job to be able to make some plans for the future. For now, she is just getting by freelance writing – writing being something she feels confident she is good at, but has never thought of as something she loves.