Now, before I start, I would like to state for the record that I really admire Dr. Tyson, and I think that he is a great public advocate for the role of science in policy making and an influential teacher who has inspired many young people to explore science. He is also not the first, nor will he be the last, person to espouse such “follow your passion!” career advice. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse to try to guide students in that way, especially when you yourself are working in your field of choice and have had great success.
It is also, in my opinion, completely misguided.
The first reaction I had to this tweet was what is at this point the fairly standard response from anyone born after about 1977 to such pithy career advice: Are you fucking kidding me? The idea of finding a job at all in our chosen field of study, let alone one that pays enough to cover both rent and our student loan payments and that we actually enjoy, is a pipe dream for I would say 90% of the people under 35 I know. There’s this idea that if we each just try hard enough as individuals that we can all overcome the realities of our current job market, statistics be damned. And advice like this also assumes that each of us even has an interest or a passion or a focus that translates easily into a career path. Not all of us want to be scientists, and a lot of us who did always want to spend our lives in the lab get partway through grad school and discover that it’s not all rainbows and kittens pursuing your dream.
If I sound bitter, I don’t actually mean to. I’ve been far less broken down by what the job market looks like for people under 35 than many of my friends. I just get really tired of hearing this same old piece of advice, because it also ignores something really important: not everyone in the world can get to have a job that’s their life passion.
This part is just simple math. There are a lot of jobs out there, jobs that are important and necessary to making our society work, that are in no way sexy or interesting or fun, for most people. It’s lovely to imagine a world in which every waitress or car mechanic or lawyer or customer service representative wakes up each morning and can’t wait to go to work, but it’s not at all realistic, and that is okay. It is OKAY to have a job that is not your life passion, that hopefully pays your bills and gives you benefits and enough time off so that you can do something cool once or twice a year, without fulfilling some greater need or desire. For some people, work is called that because that’s all it is, an agreement you make with an employer that in exchange for X number of hours of work every week, they’ll pay you Y number of dollars so you can provide for the rest of your life.
I’m not advocating that people go into careers that they know will make them unhappy, or that they settle for whatever first job they can get. I think that every person is better suited for some occupations than others, and exploring the options available to find a good match is absolutely a good idea. One job does not fit all. But not every person needs to adore their occupation. While I like my job just fine 90% of the time, I also cherish every minute of time off I am granted by my employer, and that doesn’t mean I’m wasting my life.
That’s the last thing I have a problem with in this statement. The idea that everyone’s goal for their employment should be to do something that they never want to take a break from is both ridiculous and fits in dangerously well with the U.S.’s already negative opinion of people who want “too much” time off. I am not claiming that Tyson doesn’t think employees should be granted vacation time. But this idea that work should be so all-consuming that we never want to stop to do something else for a short time is not romantic to me, or appealing. People deserve to have a good life balance between their jobs and the rest of their lives, even if that job actually is something that makes their heart sing when they wake up in the morning. Wanting to have enough time off every year so that you can travel or see family or just sit around in your home in your underwear and not do anything is not an unworthy goal. Wanting to be able to take sick time when you’re sick and not have your employer think less of you, or dock your pay, is not unreasonable.
On a societal level, this sort of advice supports the idea that every individual, rather than the labor system as a whole, is solely responsible for their own work happiness, and fuck the unfortunate souls who aren’t privileged enough, or smart enough, or lucky enough, to get a job that actually values them because they’re doing something few other people can do. There are a lot of jobs out there that I would never want to do, but that I recognize as being vital to our society functioning well, and I want those employees to be able to provide for their families and take time off. This idea that we should all follow our dreams doesn’t just fail on a personal level; it fails society as a whole.