Is “Do What You Love” Elitist?

Is “Do What You Love” Elitist?

I was pointed to a recent Slate article, “In the Name of Love,” by Miya Tokumitsu highly relevant to New Work.

Tokumitsu here describes the Steve-Jobsian commandment to “do what you love” as elitism, in that only the elite can afford such a luxury, and valuing only work done through love devalues the work actually done by most of the populace, work without which the elites could not pursue their passions. Such an attitude is Randian selfishness, and has disastrous social consequences:

“…The 21st-century Jobsian view asks us to turn inward. It absolves us of any obligation to, or acknowledgment of, the wider world… Elevating certain types of professions to something worthy of love necessarily denigrates the labor of those who do unglamorous work that keeps society functioning, especially the crucial work of caregivers… Ironically, DWYL [Do-What-You-Love] reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions, where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm.”

This may seem like a case where New Work is shown to be completely out of touch with reality, that Frithjof Bergmann’s advice for young people not to compromise is part and parcel of of Jobs’s elitist idealism.

But what it demonstrates, again, is that New Work is a multi-pronged system, combining a few distinct insights and recommendations.

1) One of these is, yes, that work can be energizing, that it is in fact a human need, and that traditional jobs do not on the whole meet this need. We can use Steve Jobs and the many other lovers of their work as inspirational models (though personally, I don’t find the corporate CEO who, even if he loves his job, has to do it 80 hrs+ per week to be my ideal), as examples of how alive people can be if they are successful in obtaining such a diet of fulfilling work. With this realization about human nature, we can see that the demands of the market (what other people want that I can provide) simply can’t morally override my own needs. This is why Ayn Rand is so inspirational to many, particularly to women raised on an ideal of self-sacrifice as virtue. Eudaimonia (“the good life” as thought about by all those ancient Greeks) requires a cultivation of the self, which contra Enlightenment thinkers does not come fully formed. Frithjof describes human nature as “frail,” in that we are easily pushed around, and it requires a lot of educational build-up for us to get the gumption to assert ourselves. Even this phrase “assert ourselves” makes it sound like there’s already a self there to assert that we just have to bring forward, but it’s the profound and legitimate finding of a whole philosophical tradition starting with Hegel that we start off as literally self-less and need to be built up from there.

2) Once we recognize this need for self-development/-fulfillment and see exactly how poorly our current society meets that demand, we need to take social action to rectify this. Contra our current political discourse which thinks about social change as purely a matter for government to perform (which libertarians object to on philosophical grounds, and most everyone agrees just isn’t going to happen in our current political climate anyway), New Work recommends movement on all fronts, particularly via voluntary associations and individual lifestyle choices. While both of these sound more like the purview of the rich (who can afford the time to enter into professional associations, volunteer opportunities, and entrepreneurial ventures), Bergmann’s work has been largely with the very poor who have been shut out of traditional employment anyway, and so have the time and motivation to pursue projects of community production: urban gardening, local manufacturing, trading services with neighbors. “Do What You Love” to someone without a job means doing something meaningful, and supporting one’s family when one couldn’t do so before is about as meaningful as it gets, particularly when this is done in a self-providing/entrepreneurial/cooperative manner and not when you’re working crummy wages for a boss.

This insight points back to a refinement of point 1; “do what you love” is a less accurate prescription than “do what you find meaningful,” and it’s a fact that what people in general really, really want when they think about it is actually to be of service to others. Helping others is something that gives our lives meaning, and so there’s a happy confluence of DWYL and actual service work. Work that actually makes a difference, that is of service, is of course a wholly different animal than “what I can get paid for,” and the equation of useful work with work that the market rewards makes much of the very real work we do for our families and communities “invisible.”

As Frithjof points out, those of us who are not in poverty have more options than we think. By taking a good hard look at your consumerist habits, you may well be able to live a leaner life that gives you and your family just as much fulfillment but at less cost, which means more of your time can be taken up with doing what you love. Community Production is of course still an essential, largely missing piece here, but what you can already do with the Internet is a good indication of what we’ll be able to do in the future: so many of our previous information-related needs can now be fulfilled at minimal expense; the next stage in this development is for material needs to be met by similarly high-tech solutions.

3) Much of Tokumitsu’s complaint is about how focusing on DWYL makes the rest of work “invisible,” and unrealistically paints “loved” work as not actually work, and so not deserving of a real wage, as evident in the epidemic of poorly paid academic work. An essential third component of New Work, after finding your calling (point 1) and Community Production (point 2), is structuring socially necessary work so that it serves us instead of us sacrificing ourselves to it. While individual bosses can contribute a lot to this process, of the three, it requires the most high-level and likely even governmental coordination and support. The goal should be to facilitate a wide range of work schedules and environments and to remove economic incentives that push people into full-time employment if they could otherwise afford (through #2 Community Production, savings, etc.) to work fewer hours at a job and so more hours pursuing a calling. So decoupling health insurance from full-time employment is a key piece of this (already accomplished in part by the Affordable Care Act), as is public transportation (available in many communities). There should be incentives to encourage tele-commuting, flex-time, job sharing, and other arrangements of that sort. Though “flexible” arrangements can often devolve into check-your-work-email-24-hours-a-day arrangements as Tokumitsu points out, and good flexibility can again become yet another holding of the elite, this is by no means necessary.

4) While the previous three points capture I think the main centers for action in New Work, i.e. 1. “Pursue meaningful work,” 2. Develop Community Production, and 3. Restructure existing work environments, I think we need another point here to capture the picture of economic development that particularly motivates New Work, which is that given increasing automation and other factors like globalization and the consequent destruction of local farming in the third world, the current job system is simply unsustainable. Already full-time, life-long work is no longer the norm, and no amount of pumping of the economic engine is going to bring back all the jobs lost to automation already. As bad as things are here in this respect, they are much worse in the third world, where worldwide agriculture has made the work of local farmers no longer profitable, and so there has been a mass migration from farms into cities, i.e. slums, and no amount of foreign corporations deigning to set up shop in such areas is going to employ anywhere near everyone. So Community Production has been developed by New Work not primarily as a way that we here can make our own gadgets with 3D printers and engage in low-time-commitment cooperative farming so that we ultimately can get by with much less money and so don’t need full-time jobs (though it is that), but was instead developed as a way for whole communities in depressed areas to in effect create a local economy by using simple but innovative technologies to provide for themselves.

So instead of merely gritting our teeth in the face of economic catastrophe, New Work takes the challenges of increased automation (how many full-time jobs will we have left in the U.S. when self-driving cars and robot delivery and many comparable technologies are fully implemented?) as an opportunity for us to reassess what it is we really want to be doing as a society: chasing after the last scraps of jobs, or restructuring society so that jobs, and in effect money, become not so pervasive a part of our lives? …So that “doing what you love” becomes not just a dream for the few, but (for instance) something that everyone has the opportunity to pursue in the 20 hrs. per week where they’re not engaged in wage labor?

By laying out these elements of New Work I’ve tried to reveal individual points for agreement, rejection, or modification. There are many that focus solely on the economic analysis in #4 and look for ways to distribute income that don’t rely solely on jobs, such as a guaranteed minimum income or a “shadow wage” people could receive for doing unpaid service work. One legislative half-solution would simply be to reduce the number of working hours, i.e. require overtime pay for anything more than 30 (or fewer!) hours per week. By themselves, such solutions might well simply increase the number of poor, or leave us with unstructured time that would be filled largely with more TV, or produce other undesirable results. This is why New Work as a philosophy is needed: to emphasize and explore the psychology involved and so help devise counseling and educational programs needed to help people develop themselves, i.e. figure out what they really, really want to do, what tasks (that again, would in most cases result in creation of economic value, but if not that, then still real value for real people and not purely selfish indulgence) they could try and develop and coordinate with others. Though income redistribution (even if politically feasible) might well address the economic crisis in the U.S., it wouldn’t work in poorer countries where there simply isn’t the tax base to provide a guaranteed minimum income or anything like it.

Likewise, some people might focus on point 2 and simply develop a do-it-yourself lifestyle as an alternative to jobs for its own sake. Certainly 3D printing and comparable innovations are exciting enough in themselves that one could be enthusiastic about those without any commitment to the wider New Work program, or one could approach Community Production as a strategy to revitalize poor areas like Detroit without thinking that there is need or application for it elsewhere. Those skeptical of the whole feasibility of Community Production might still recognize the ill fit between jobs and our psychological needs and so advocate for transformation of the workplace (point 3). Really none of 1-3 strictly requires a recognition of immanent economic catastrophe (point 4), though the necessity for change makes it of course much more likely that change will actually occur: a crisis makes it much more difficult to remain passive and conservative in the light of social injustice.

What I do hope to have illustrated is that simply focusing on one aspect (point 1) and not thinking it through properly (not widening “work that you love” to “work that is meaningful”) or trying to devise economic, political or social solutions to the elitism identified, results in a poor analysis that denies the obvious truth of Jobs’s claim: that a good life requires us not to simply be slaves serving market forces, but to take ownership of what we do, to identify with it, to find meaning and do something cool If economic circumstances make this an impossible dream for most of us, then it’s our job as a political entity to change these circumstances, not to extinguish the dream.

-Mark Linsenmayer

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