In a recent Jacobin article (reworked at Slate), Miya Tokumitsu argues that we should stop saying “do what you love,” (DWYL) because it “devalues actual work” and dehumanizes workers. Tokumitsu writes,
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.
While Tokumitsu makes some great points, the article seems to miss the mark. The problem isn’t that a few smug elites (or idealistic moms) suggest doing what you love. DWYL is a saying; it doesn’t create the conditions for unpaid and low-wage labor, or any labor at all. The problem is that work has acquired a larger-than-life status, and — at least in the US — we’ve become committed to work as our life’s activity to the point that questions like why money is distributed how it is, or why the workweek is as long as it is are pretty much off the table. The problem isn’t DWYL (because we should, indeed, strive to do what we love with our time even if not as a job), but the problem is precisely that our attachment to the institution of work makes it so that people can’t do what they love, ever, even for a few hours a week, and they don’t have the time or resources to think about what they might love because their very livelihood is synonymous with something we call “work.”
Taken this way, our target of criticism is not a mostly innocuous phrase, or even the supposed ideology behind it, but rather the very institution of work that Tokumitsu seems unconcerned to interrogate. After all, it’s not as though the Steve Jobsian work ethic is the only one that’s problematic; our overall fetishization of “hard work” and the hugely popular Protestant work ethic that drives our economy, culture, and lifestyles is just as troublesome. This issue goes beyond fair compensation and leisure time and calls for reevaluating the way that we organize life around work over all else. Why is paid work our primary life activity, and why are we content to keep it that way? Even progressive views like Tokumitsu’s tend to take for granted and passively affirm compulsory wage labor as our dominant social and economic relation.
There must be a way to address employment conditions and demand that they improve now while also actively engaging the possibility and desirability of a postwork future. This is imperative not only because human experience should be about living creatively, building relationships, and, frankly, enjoying ourselves, but also because we have an empirical problem of permanent surplus labor. That is, too many people are competing for too few jobs just to get by; hence, the perpetual existence of an unemployed, or wageless, part of the US population. Combating this issue can’t simply mean fairer wages or “job creation,” but must entail a commitment to transforming society in ways that eliminate people’s dependence on the availability of wage labor and ensure that everyone has enough to do — and to discover — what they love.