Passion vs. Pay: A Generational Debate

The workforce is changing. A constant evolution through generational shifts often creates new paths by which processes – once the norm – become archaic. Work atmospheres that once were considered best for creativity are now viewed as creativity squelchers. Moreover, office hours that used to be written in stone are being traded for more work flexibility outside the normal eight-to-five setting. One major reason for this change is the emerging generation who will comprise nearly 75% of the global workforce by 2025 – the Millennials.

There have been countless articles written about Gen Y’s work ethic and their entitlement mindset. However, there seems to be a truth that media and analysts overlook: each subsequent generation is going to be criticized by each preceding generation. It’s a fact of life. So instead of pointing out issues associated with any group of twenty-somethings, whether in the 2010s or the 1970s, it’s important to note a shift in job outlook and career development for Millennials and an important question they often ask themselves – “Do I work for passion, or work for pay?”

A Passionate Workforce

Ever since Confucius penned the now-famous words, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” human kind has been searching for the best way to approach work. The Traditionalists felt a strong loyalty to their company, working for most of their careers in one place. However, each subsequent generation in the work force has stayed at companies for shorter and shorter periods of time, searching for a job that can balance financial goals with underlying, purpose-driven self-fulfillment. But now, it seems the latter of the two has taken a leading role over financial goals as Millennials focus more on life balance and communal purpose than simply making money. A study by professional services company Towers Watson found retaining employees now has more to do with employers providing a satisfying experience, inspiring culture, and good quality relationships than it does rewards-based motivation. And I would argue the shift is directly related to life-changing events and social surroundings.

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

Each generation is affected by life-altering events. The Traditionalists were galvanized by The Great Depression and World War II, giving them strong loyalty and a focus of giving their offspring, the Baby Boomers, a better life, while the Millennials were raised in a time of exponential, technological advancement and were affected by the attacks of 9/11 and the economic shortcomings of The Great Recession. The argument of passion versus pay is basically the age-old question “does money buy happiness?” Tom Magliozzi of National Public Radio equated that “happiness equals reality minus expectations.” So being happy at work means that the reality of office life and pay outweigh what an employee wants or feels like they deserve. That doesn’t have to mean money; it could mean passion toward what they do or if they feel like they are doing work that makes a difference in the world. Either way, passion and pay both fit into Magliozzi’s equation.

What Experts Say

According to some, the problem with following or searching for passion in a profession is that it is detrimental to overall career development and leaves young people holding out for the elusive perfect position. Cal Newport, faculty member at Georgetown University and author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” says the modern-day thought process that stems from the Confucius’ “do what you love” quote is flawed. He says that finding jobs that fit a passion is a backwards way of thinking; mainly, if you develop skills within a career, you will become passionate. Monique Valcour, a professor at EDHEC Business School in France, explains that “the ‘follow your passion’ self-help industry tends to under-emphasize this key point: all of the self-awareness in the world is of little use if you can’t pitch your passion to a buyer.” And basically, working in an industry develops you and starts creating in you a sense of meaning. And while you develop more skills and become more marketable to companies, you tend to be more fulfilled in your work.

The Disconnect

However, this thinking, while sensible, still leaves a disconnect from what the majority of workers are feeling. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 30% of American employees feel engaged or inspired and a resounding 70% of workers feel they are not reaching their full potential. Passionate workers are engaged workers, so one could conclude that 70% of American workers aren’t passionate at work. Disengaged workers tend to cost companies money by lowering productivity and spreading negative energy to the rest of the team. As Newport and Valcour said, people can become passionate about the work, but the formula doesn’t make it to the rest of the 70% of employees who aren’t passionate or actively engaged in their professions.

Learn from Millennials and Older Generations

In the fight between working for passion and working for pay, there are imperative truths on both sides of the spectrum. First of all, those who are passionate about their work tend to work harder and help companies stay competitively innovative in their respected markets. Secondly, workers who focus on developing skills and bettering themselves in careers they choose tend to develop passion for their careers along the way. Finally, marrying the two types of people in the workforce creates a cohesive team that will work hard to achieve the same goal – worth at work. No, there is not an easy answer to this question or a clear-cut winner or loser, but one thing is for certain: people have always been trying to find a good work/life balance, no matter what they are out to get, be it passion or pay.

How have you tackled this question? What do you think is more important, working for passion or developing it throughout a career? Let us know in the comments section below!

5 Responses to Passion vs. Pay: A Generational Debate

  1. Dan Walter November 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    I believe, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that you cannot get to passion (esteem or self-actualization) unless the lower needs are satisfied. Pay is tied directly to Maslow’s “Safety” need. So, to reach passion – pay needs to meet one’s needs first.

  2. Slavisa November 6, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Interesting article, but as always, it is concentrated on workers only. Where is the role of the company in this? While it is true that passionate employee works harder, it is more productive and has better, more innovative ideas, very often companies are failing to differentiate such a worker form the rest of mentioned 70% whom are just there to put in their 8 hours and get paid. Such a treatment causes those passionate workers to lose their passion and melt into the mediocre majority. Acknowledging and rewarding passionate and loyal worker goes a long way. Worker like that is more productive, gets involved in any issues that are not even directly related to his/hers job duties, accepts larger work loads, is ready to sacrifice its most valuable asset, its own time, for the company and has great impact as motivator to others. All this is just an addition to Maslow’s theory that without basic needs and expectations met, workers will always just do their job in bare minimum to satisfy the superiors and never go extra mile.

  3. Jill Basnight November 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    The importance of pay cannot be overlooked and workmen are indeed worthy of their hire. That fact established, employers would do well – especially in today’s financial market – to heed what motivates even when the pay doesn’t quite meet expectations. Leniency with time off in recognition of extra effort and time on the job is highly motivating. Call it the human touch or whatever, when a boss or supervisor allows a valuable employee who has been busting her rear on the job to take an undocked hour or two to take her child to the doctor, it endears her to the company. When a supervisor offers genuine praise for quality work, the employee will work even harder. It’s the power of encouragement. A negative job environment is an energy drain, but sadly the modus operandi of controlling supervisors, aka supervisor “bullies.” Wise employers know that encouragement preserves and even boosts energy and liberates the employee to pour that energy into workplace productivity. The choice between the two is a no-brainer for the truly wise employer.


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