The Dream Job That Wasn’t

With people who are lucky enough to still have a job now working longer hours than before the pandemic, it’s not hard to see the susceptibility to this kind of messaging—when workers have so little agency about the conditions of their daily life, why not focus on the things that seem to be in their control? Doing what you “love” can sometimes blunt the impact of doing that work for long hours and for little pay. Still, the intended audience for this messaging about passion and purpose is deeply stratified by class—it is largely targeted to white-collar workers in nonprofit, tech, media, and other industries with job titles like Chief Fun Officer. 

But the message around loving what you do can be warped to circumstance: People who work in low-income industries like care work, fields dominated by women of color and immigrant workers, are often exploited in part because they are supposed to love what they do. The language of “family,” often weakly invoked in startup culture, is literalized in fields like home health care, where the work is life-giving and incredibly intimate. This can be the frame—duty, family—through which poor wages and other workplace abuses are ignored.       

This isn’t to say that loving what you do is bad—we all want to find meaning where we can in our lives, and many of these dream jobs involve caring for others and the natural world—but the romanticization of certain types of work can obscure the simple fact that they are jobs and, like any job, require mass organizing to suck less.  A common mantra among park rangers is, “You get paid in sunrises and sunsets.” The implication is that if you’re working your dream, you’ll take any conditions that come with it. Smith told me that he hates that saying. “The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, but they don’t put food on the table,” he said. 

We should understand work as work, and that no job, no matter how much you love it, is an exception. Smith said that something a more senior ranger once said sticks with him: “What’s the issue with giving people decent jobs that allow them to have decent lives?” This reality might sound deflating, especially for a kid thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, but looked at another way, it can also be quite enchanting. If a dream job is like any other job, then isn’t making all jobs better the dream? 

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