The 'Do What You Love' Mantra and Co-Option of a Laborious Work Culture

The young millennial labour force has internalised the idea that no matter what service they provide, passion should be driving its delivery.

The new world of work is a place of longer working hours, ‘zero hour’ contracts and always-on freelance workers in step with Steve Job’s ‘love what you do’ philosophy. Here, the school of thought says that when you love what you do, it’s not work, it’s who you are. Finding one’s identity in work is not new. The millennial search for meaning in work, however, is putting an entirely new spin on what it means to commit to the job.

In her 2014 viral essay – ‘In the Name of Love’ – Miya Tokumitsu knocks the ‘do what you love’ (DWYL) work mantra off its pedestal. ‘According to this way of thinking, labour 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’.

‘In the Name of Love’ dismantles the harmless-sounding DWYL mantra, exposing the modern worker’s narcissism and co-option into excessive working hours. Tokumitsu’s writing is popular – the essay became a book, and the book became a big seller. More pertinently, her take on aspirational behaviour in the contemporary work culture remains timely and instructive.

The Uberfication of faculty jobs

Some professions have proven more vulnerable to the replacement of a living wage with the ‘reward’ of fulfilment. In the West, fixed term and zero hour contracts have become de rigueur in higher education. Currently, only about 50% of UK faculty are on regular employment.

At Oxford University, for example, 63.7% of teaching staff are on insecure contracts. In India, 33% of positions in central universities remain vacant, with the shortfall being met by ad hoc teaching staff. In the case of Delhi University, Rajesh Jha, a member of DU’s Executive Council, puts the number at roughly 50% for faculty employed on an ad hoc basis.

Also Read: Is a Life, Dominated in Every Moment by Work, Worth Living?

Many who take on fixed-term contracts or hourly paid positions operate from a deep rooted faith in the progression from doing what you love to ultimate job stability – historically, doctoral graduates would spend years picking up odd hours around the departments that awarded their PhDs until a permanent opening arose.

Today, precarious labour is not limited to recent graduates but extends across the spectrum. In The Guardian, a 44-year old political sociologist with extensive publications compared the demands of working part-time across different institutions with ‘three HR systems and three intranets and three security systems’, to playing ‘Tetris very fast’. ‘And then you look at what you’re doing all this for and it’s three hours one week, seven another, none the next week’, he said.

Casualised contracts even prompted Gary Hill to write about the need to defend UK Higher Education from encroachment by the sharing economy in The Uberfication of the University. Hill’s book draws connections between academic restructuring, disappearing employment rights and expectations of academics to become ‘microentrepreneurs of the self’, or their own ‘precarious freelance enterprises’.

With ‘Uberfication’ of more and more commercial services, greater numbers are joining the platform labour force, swelling the ranks of ‘do what you love’ freelance workers. Working off the internet also means selling oneself on the net. Millennials and Generation Z-ers know better than anyone how to build web presences as proof of passion and love for what they do.

This is a young labour force who has internalised that whatever the service provided, passion should be driving its delivery. These ‘hustlers’ without traditional employers frequently base themselves out of co-working spaces, the brick and mortar expressions of the DWYL mantra.

Also Read: Burnout, Stress Lead More Companies Around the World to Try Four-Day Work Week

The décor in sharing economy offices, mushrooming in cities around the world, channels the industrial-chic coffee-shop-and-magazine-shoot ready home. Their ‘instagramable’ offices are magnets for gig workers hustling for employment in an online marketplace. The optics of a place to work at that looks like a place to hang is an easy sell to the DWYL worker.

The new office ‘lifestyle’

WeWork is a large global provider of coworking spaces with operations stretching from Dallas to Tokyo and 100 other cities in between. The New York Times dubs it ‘the Starbucks of office culture’. In Manhattan alone, WeWork rents 5.3 million square feet, making it the largest occupier of private office space on the island.

The company, which launched in India in late 2016, already has a deskcount of 35,000 with forecasts for 1.15 lakh by the end of this year. In addition to desk space, it has been able to monetise the border-collapse between work and life in web and mobile saturated societies. ‘Make a life not just a living’, WeWork’s homepage instructs visitors to its site. The exhortation displayed on screens in one of their actual premises is a slight variation on the web content: ‘create your life’s work’.

Last June, I entered WeWork’s website to schedule a visit to one of their offices in Bangalore, posing as a prospective customer for ‘a flexible hot desk in an open space’. My email communication with ‘The WeWork Team’ set the tone for my upcoming ‘tour’: ‘We can’t wait to meet you and learn more about what you do’.

When I visited them on the appointed day, top 100 chart music played loudly in the open plan sections housing hot desks, couches and a self-service coffee counter. Tan leather sofas, coffee table books – on Monet, travel and textiles – and exposed ceiling piping tried hard to carry off trending interiors.

A co-working office space. Credit: wework.com

A relaxed hangout vibe carried over into the restrooms: fuschia coloured cubicle doors and signs near the hand driers illustrated with pictures of dental floss, shaving blades and toothbrushes, and reassurances: ‘We’ve got you covered. See a community manager for a variety of items you might need in a pinch’. Later, I came across a wellness programme printed up on a menu card tucked next to a coffee table book. Members could choose between yoga, zumba, fitness and conditioning classes, eating momos with the community and had the opportunity to frost cupcakes.

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‘This is the place’, announces a pink LED sign on the wall. And most certainly it is the place which, by design, keeps the worker at work for longer. WeWork and other coworking spaces bring the creature comforts of home to work, similar to how email and the web and mobile applications originally brought work home.

Ironically, these are spaces pitched as homey to people who don’t want to work from home. And for those who want the semblance of a home on a work trip, the collaborative workspace company is rolling out a new residential model called WeLive. It rents out apartments ‘with tastefully curated interiors’ on a nightly or monthly basis with the distinction of access to communal space and co-living perks such as ‘happy hours, family dinners and Wellness events’.

Visitors to its website are told: ‘We create a convenient, comfortable, and connected space with everything you need to live, work and play. All you have to do is show up with your suitcase’. For the DWYL worker, whose aim is the integration of life into work, WeLive and WeWork have them covered.

‘Work/life lifestyle’, the newest phrase to do the rounds, seems a good descriptor for how ‘doing what you love’ has made the 9-5 workday a dated concept.

This is the first article on a two-part series on work culture. Read the second part here.

Aileen Blaney is a faculty member at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology and a co-editor of the book Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice.