“Do what you love” is a solution to a privileged problem


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I’m way late to commenting on this but the winter issue of Jacobin, the “quarterly magazine of culture and polemic,” sparked some interesting discussions over Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the nature of “do what you love” (DWYL) and the culture of work. She described the phrase as “the unofficial work mantra for our time,” prompting a thoughtful agreement from Leah Libresco in The American Conservative, and argues that it’s an ascription that ultimately delegitimizes the real work of those for whom the mantra it is intended for as well as the labor of those it necessarily ignores.

Tokumitsu explains why:

“Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

The whole piece is well-worth reading. She asks all the right sociological questions for something like DWYL; who is meant for and who does it ignore? Does it recognize the social structure that produces it? These are all basic but, as Tokumitsu emphasizes, the very nature of the mantra hides those answers in the pursuit of introspection.

I don’t know if DWYL really is “the unofficial work mantra for our time,” in such a way as to elevate it to its own ideology — as opposed to just another cultural mechanism for some to justify life decisions when they have the good fortune to take risks. Likewise, the companion phrase “love what you do,” as the cultural equivalent of a leftover, offers only the most token of gestures towards providing a false sense of empowerment. Yet even if it doesn’t deserve that level of scrutiny, the act of criticizing DWYL didn’t deserve befuddlement, nor the Twitter equivalent of ‘damn hippies.’

For one, I was extremely appreciative that Tokumitsu mentions care work. Specifically, that the two fastest growing occupations (in terms of percentage increase) over the next decade are home health aides and personal care aides. Like a lot of the low-wage workforce this is a particularly gendered field as well. Over 90 percent of direct care workers are women. And as Sarah Jaffe wrote in her excellent piece here, “[w]omen may be overrepresented in the growing sectors of the economy, but those sectors pay poverty wages.” For the type of valuable work that is embodied in caring for the elderly and infirm the labor compensation is dreadfully low — the average wage for both is between $10-11 dollars an hour. This particular aspect of the low-wage future deserves greater awareness.

Yet let’s be honest here; it’s a credo for a conceptual problem that just doesn’t exist for most workers. DWYL isn’t meant for a structurally powerless class of wage labor with comparatively weak policy influence. It’s a mantra more relevant to a level of economic security that doesn’t involve visiting a food bank or worrying that unpaid court fees might land you in prison. At some point scarcity of money is less of a concern than a scarcity of meaning, when it then becomes that “secret handshake of the privileged” inherent in the ability to take risks in discovering that kind of profitable purpose.

Tokumitsu may be right to say that DWYL also does no favor to the more well-off — in further depoliticizing their labor from the market as a whole — but it’s a far more pernicious pursuit when it increases social distance from those already politically and economically marginalized. No one should mistake their wage labor as a measurement of self-worth, but real empowerment for the disenfranchised would be better served by a livable wage.


5 responses to ““Do what you love” is a solution to a privileged problem

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