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Follow your dreams, but don’t ask questions

By Steph Guthrie

As part of the under-30 set, my generation (perhaps more than any other) has been encouraged to pursue our passions ever since we exited the womb. I am confident in the good intentions of the baby boomer parents behind this encouragement, but the “follow your dreams” career narrative can have some rather unpleasant economic and demographic side effects.

A significant component of career satisfaction for many young workers is the ability to apply their creativity, meaning that pursuing one’s passion often means seeking jobs in creative sectors (e.g. media, fashion, publishing, film & TV, music, some corners of the technology industry). Since these desirable industries typically have no shortage of applicants, employers can squeeze more out of the workers “lucky” enough to make it in.

It is no coincidence that unpaid internships have largely replaced entry-level jobs in most of these industries. The creative industries are prime destinations for oodles of bright-eyed youth with stellar educations and, by virtue of their lack of experience, few expectations regarding the value of their time and labour. The attraction to creative work tends to lie less in big bucks than in augmented cultural capital and the promise of having intrinsic passion for one’s work. In fact, caring about compensation is often seen as the mark of a person who doesn’t really belong in the industry, a person who doesn’t really “want it”.

Many young workers internalize the belief that if they are not willing to work around the clock to succeed in their industry, that they do not deserve to be there. Hard work is one thing – we should all be willing to invest our best efforts in a job during working hours, and perhaps work overtime during crunch periods to support our teams and produce work we can be proud of. But year-round 60-hour weeks should not be the norm for workers, nor should the expectation that workers respond to emails, monitor social media, or show up on their bosses’ doorsteps 24/7. But the prevailing wisdom of “when your work is your passion, it’s no longer a job” can blur the boundaries between work and life for creatives.

This emphasis on intrinsic passion can lead many young workers to avoid asking themselves (and their employers) what kinds of extrinsic benefits they derive from their work. The prevalence of unpaid internships adds a constant, silent reminder to young creatives of their chosen industry’s competitiveness. If following your dreams happens to pan out and you break into the industry, “do the work you’re passionate about” can easily become “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. Working way more hours than you’re getting paid for? Hush, you’re lucky to have a job in this sector! Not getting paid at all? Hush, you’re getting your name out there!

The more common this kind of attitude becomes, the easier it is for employers to justify unpaid internships and copious unpaid overtime for paid employees. And the more common those become (spoiler: they are already pretty common!), the more “pursue your passion” becomes advice that only affluent, childless young people can afford to follow. In a job market where youth are twice as likely to be unemployed as the general workforce, young people in any industry are already primed to be grateful for any opportunity and to avoid complaining. In the creative industries this pressure is especially pronounced.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the employers making business decisions that squeeze young workers often come from the same generation that encouraged those workers (their children) to “follow their dreams”? These business decisions are intended to benefit shareholders only, and lack a macro vision of our economy’s future. Perhaps employers would be less inclined to squeeze young workers if they knew that the dreams they were shattering were, in a way, those of their own children. And perhaps young creatives would be more willing to stand up for decent working conditions if they knew that the employers squeezing them are, in a way, the parents who once encouraged them to follow their dreams.

Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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