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Passion vs. Pay: A Generational Debate

By: James C. Price – October 23, 2013


The workforce is changing. A constant evolution through generational shifts creates new paths by which processes – once the norm – become archaic. Work atmospheres, which once were considered the best atmosphere for creativity, are now viewed as creative quenchers. Moreover, office hours always seen as written in stone are now being traded for more fluid 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. The ironic part is a truth media and analysts seem to 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 2010’s or the 1970’s, it’s important to see a very important shift in job outlook and career development. Gen Y is tasked with the age-old question: 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!