Career priorities emphasize passion over financial security during pandemic

Job instability during the COVID-19 pandemic has reshuffled the priorities of millions of workers, who have placed greater importance on passion for work over financial security, according to a recently released study by the ‘University of Michigan.

The researchers sought to learn more about what happens to the career priorities of college-educated workers who have lost their jobs or been laid off during the pandemic.

Contrary to assumptions that people in economic difficulty will prioritize financial security above all else, research shows that workers who experienced job instability as a result of the pandemic were more likely to prioritize looking for a passion at work than people whose jobs were stable during the pandemic.

This emphasis on passion “suggests that job instability can trigger existential disruption that leads people to a broader sense of meaning-making beyond financial stability,” he said. Erin Cechassociate professor of sociology at UM and lead author of the study.

PhD student Cech and UM Sophie Hiltner compared the priorities of 1,628 college-educated American workers who were laid off or furloughed eight months into the pandemic with those of workers whose jobs remained stable. During this period, vaccines were not available and the full economic consequences of the pandemic were not yet clear, Cech said.

The study focused on college-educated workers because they have access to safety nets that may allow greater financial freedom to consider other options, the researchers wrote. In general, they said, the financial constraints associated with job instability during a crisis can cause many unemployed workers to scramble to get the work they can find.

Yet according to the findings, college-educated workers who experienced pandemic-related job instability placed more importance on finding work they were passionate about than on stable or high-paying jobs. In other words, they prioritized career fulfillment and meaning, Cech said. In fact, 46% of those respondents ranked passion as their top priority in career decision-making, compared to 20% who ranked salary and 13% who ranked job security as their top concern.

These patterns existed by gender, parental status, race/ethnicity or class background, she added.

“These results indicate that the economic fallout accompanying the pandemic has not stifled the popularity of meaning and fulfillment as guiding principles for career decision-making, at least for college graduates,” Cech said. “Experiences of pandemic-related job instability may even have amplified it.

“The findings provide important context for understanding why we’re seeing so many ‘Help Wanted’ signs around the country right now. They suggest the Great Resignation may be perpetuated in part by workers seeking a different relationship with paid work, a relationship that gives more meaning and fulfillment to their lives.

Still, Cech warned that “following your passion” comes with its own risks. As she explains in her recent book, “The problem of passion: how the search for fulfillment at work promotes inequalitiesprioritizing passion can leave workers vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and entrust a fundamental sense of their identity to the turbulent fluxes of the global economy.

The study was published in Socius.

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Sarah J. Greer