Companies & Industries

Jobs: Passion—or a Steady Paycheck?


More people are leaving behind uninspiring careers and trying to earn a living from work they love. The government can help them reinvent themselves

After more than a decade in the advertising business, Erik Proulx found himself on the wrong end of a pink slip. What most people might have deemed a setback, though, he saw as an opportunity. Instead of looking for another job making TV commercials, Proulx dove into a longtime dream: filmmaking. Last December he released a documentary called Lemonade, which chronicles the lives of ad industry veterans who reinvented themselves after being laid off: a coffee roaster, a nutrition coach, an artist, and others who, like Proulx, decided to pursue their passions rather than return to careers that were no longer inspiring.

With the unemployment rate apparently stuck at or near double digits, more people seem to be choosing a passion over a steady paycheck. Rather than waiting for companies to open up their payrolls, these people are taking matters into their own hands and defining their own jobs, going online to find each other, leverage each other's capabilities and services, and learn faster by working together. That is a big risk, but these people realize that they'll be far happier if they can find something they love doing and figure out creative ways to make a living from it. Focusing on work that offers greater meaning makes it easier to withstand the perils and roadblocks they will face as they leave the corporate fold.

The big question is whether this trend can evolve into a sustainable engine of economic growth. I believe two technological developments—cloud computing and social networking—have the potential to make that possible. Cloud computing instantly offers the most powerful technology resources to entrepreneurs wherever they are. Whether you're talking about sophisticated data-crunching capacity or access to scientific devices such as electron microscopes, this technology can now be just a click away.

Social networks and collaboration software help connect entrepreneurs to many more potential partners than ever before. This helps them learn from the experience of others to make their own businesses smarter and more efficient. Until recently, social networks were deeply suspect in the workplace. Now people are beginning to discover that they have growing business potential, especially for smaller entrepreneurs. This is an unprecedented development, allowing entrepreneurs to connect with like-minded individuals around the world, harnessing the power of people to build their businesses.

This trend is still at an early stage, but we should focus on what we can do to nurture it. In The Power of Pull, a book I co-authored with John Hagel, we argue that simply bringing people back into careers that they are lukewarm about isn't the answer to sustainable job creation. A survey called the Shift Index, released last year by consultancy Deloitte, shows that 80percent of workers are not enamored of their jobs. In a world of mounting economic pressure driven by intensifying global competition, passion is essential to the kind of performance improvement needed to succeed. Without that, people will be simply exchanging the stress of being unemployed for the stress of feeling trapped in dead-end jobs where ever more effort is needed to just stay put.

Economic downturns are often catalysts for change; rarely do things return to the way they were. This downturn appears to be no exception. As more people turn the stress of unemployment into an opportunity to pursue their passions, the government could support these efforts by, for example, creating tax incentives for entrepreneurs seeking to build businesses in inner cities. This would help create jobs for urban youths, the group with the highest unemployment rate.

Other steps that government could take would be to develop rules that make it easier to hold on to corporate benefits such as health care, shift tax incentives from homeownership to renting to increase worker mobility, and relax licensing barriers that hinder the creation of small businesses. With the right kind of help from policymakers, sustainable job creation just might rest in the hands of the people.

Seely Brown is the former chief scientist of Xerox and former head of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He is also a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California.

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