My previous entry ended with an unfinished thought about designing an economy with the aim of giving people the opportunity to do the work that they want to do. Plenty of other thinkers have recommended doing what you love—I’ve just finished reading Srinivas Rao’s Audience of One (2018) for example—but what about work that no one loves yet needs to be done? And can we afford to indulge our passions for art and the humanities, for example, if we really need to get some science and engineering done?
Many years ago, when I worked as a software developer in a library, I overheard someone observe that many of the people employed to shelve books did not actually do this as a career choice, but that they in fact had real passions in writing plays and the like. Duh! I thought. Yet so much of the rhetoric around jobs and careers that I read in books, opinion articles, and university web sites takes much the perspective of someone surprised that library workers don’t shelve books out of passion—for these writers one’s paid work and one’s passion are inseparable.
I’ve perceived the point even more clearly since taking on an administrative role myself. Offering course advice to students is not so glamorous as making the next scientific breakthrough, developing the next killer app, writing a novel, or maybe even teaching a great class on computer programming. Yet someone is willing to pay for it because it meets a need, and I’ve been able to use that payment to pursue some other passions that might not pay so well.
The question that I asked at the end of my previous entry might then be more precisely asked as, how do we do the work that we want to do, while also doing the work that we need to do do?
Most or all of the actual work that I have done deals with this question in a fashion: I want to write computer software, but I need to debug it; I want to write a novel, but I need to edit it; and so on. But we do not seem to have grasped this notion from an economy-wide perspective; one narrative talks of what the economy “needs” while another talks of following passions to do what we “want”. The former supposes that we will put aside our passions and work on whatever is good for the economy (or maybe develop a passion for whatever is good for the economy) while the latter supposes that the economy will reward us if only we sufficiently apply ourselves to our passions.
To the extent that I’ve enjoyed a career that is both financially rewarding and reasonably well-aligned with my passions, I haven’t had to choose, at least not until deciding that I wanted to do more than write computer software all day. My personal solution has been to reduce my working hours (on things that the economy “needs”) in order to make more space for what I want to do. A strict the-economy-needs-skills narrative might object that I could be even more useful if I applied my in-demand skills for the whole week instead of half of it, while a strict follow-your-passion narrative might object that I’m a hack only lazily committed to said passion. But ultimately I have to choose some number of hours each week to spend on each (even spending all of my hours on one would be a choice, and still the number of hours would be limited).
I can’t say for sure how my personal solution might work out on an economy-wide basis. Maybe the economy really could use me to write more computer software or teach more classes, but somehow hasn’t communicated it to me in the form of offers of work. Maybe government policies could shape the economy in some way so as to bring it closer to our passions. But we can start by recognising that our work is neither a desperate scramble to scrape together what we need to survive, nor a fun-filled adventure in pursuit of passion, but that we must somehow find space for both.