Being Individuals in an Increasingly Individualistic Culture

Career advisors and motivational speakers are obsessed with “passion” as the key to a happy successful career. I do not question the underlying message but I do think the message ought to be complicated a bit and placed in a broader context.

First, “find a job you’re passionate about” isn’t a simple task that you can just check off the list. To do it right requires a lifelong commitment to a set of values. Second, I think these are new values. Advice to pursue your passion is a profound shift from what a young person’s parents heard. Finally, the passion imperative is rooted in a larger idea of individualism, which operates on both the global and local level, and it affects everything, not just career thinking.

Back in the day, spiritual fulfillment was not on the check list when thinking about work. Career-advice instead assumed that a job first and foremost puts food on the table and supports your stay-at-home wife and children, that stability matters more than stimulation, and that to get to the top you have to earn your stripes and respect established hierarchies (and thus stay at one employer for a long time).

Today, career-advice assumptions start with a conviction that you are special and need to find work suited to your special interests and strengths. In other words, before picking a career, you need to first “find yourself.” This involves an extended period of self-discovery, aka The Odyssey Years, in which you try on for size a bevy of jobs. Then, after experimenting, you settle on a career (or perhaps multiple careers in parallel) about which you are truly passionate. Nothing says “I am unique and passionate” like starting your own business around your passion. No surprise, then, that we are witnessing a golden age of entrepreneurship. Along the way you struggle with self-doubt, loneliness, and the nagging issue of whether you are actually passionate about chosen career path, but if all goes to plan you come out with a life uniquely stitched to you.

That is the ideal career trajectory presented to Gen Y and I do not think it was the one presented to Baby Boomers. What happened? One theory: the shift in career messages is part of the larger blossoming of individuality.

Individualism has been the dominant cultural force since the 60’s. The birth control pill ushered a new era of sexual freedom and related identities. Cable television and now the internet (the greatest individualizing force of all-time) have allowed people to opt out of mass media and instead construct a personal blend of information sources. If you are what you read, you can now be a great many things, including all-your-own hybrids. The feminist movement has caused a huge expression of individualism: women are free-thinking individuals who can opt out of pre-written career (or non-career) scripts and lead unique, unpredictable lives. And around the world, democracy and capitalism, ever the enablers of choice and individual identity, has been on the march; history ended in 1989, after all.

The development of norms and the clarification of societal expectations around new behavior usually lag the actual behavior. This is one explanation for the Quarter-life Crisis phenomenon: 20-somethings are being told to do the new behavior — applying the spirit of individualism to their career — without the guideposts, case studies, and advice from people who’ve been there / done that.

Imagine being a teenage girl listening to your stay-at-home mom telling you to break through the glass ceiling. Imagine being a teenage boy listening to your dad, who’s had one employer his whole life, now encouraging you to start a business or at least get into a job you’re passionate about. Or imagine being a 28 year-old ambitious, career-minded woman, one rung away from Managing Director. If you have kids, the career will certainly suffer, and you’ll also think (rightly or wrongly) that the kids suffered as well. Skip the hard work that it’d take to get the promotion and have kids, and you’ve let down the feminists who’ve come before you. It’s not clear what you “should” do or how others will judge your actions.

Bottom Line: When people say, “Find a job you’re passionate about” they really mean to include it under the broader 21st century mandate: “Go out there and become self-actualized.” This sounds a whole lot scarier and impossibly vague. That’s because it is. A lot of the career angst over “passion” is part of a larger learn-as-we-go process of how to be individuals in an increasingly individualistic culture, as Wilkinson puts it. We should celebrate greater individualism and the quest to personalize our career, despite the associated stresses — just as we celebrate women’s freedom despite how it complicates women’s lives. It would be nice, however, if the career advice industry would frame their obsession with passion in larger sociological context, and reinforce how new a concept it really is.


Thanks to Will Wilkinson for inspiring this post via his diavlog with Kay Hymowitz and his blog post Menaissance and Its Dickscontents.

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