The Passion Premium: The Price of Working at What You Love

A few years back I was looking at a variety of advertised vacancies, including some roles with community-based organisations working with vulnerable groups. Two things struck me simultaneously. One was the proliferation of the word ‘passion’. Successful candidates will be passionate about delivering excellent support and advocating for positive social change. The other thing was that the salaries were low, particularly given the intensity of the workload and the level of qualification required to be interviewed.

As my search widened, I started to look at entry-level programmes in various businesses and at internships. Again, loads of passion required, not much cash to be expected in return. My mind drifted back to a controversy that blew up in 2010 following comments on TV by Bill Cullen, celebrity entrepreneurs (used car salesman) and opposite number to Alan Sugar and Donald Trump on Ireland’s The Apprentice. With employment rates in a sustained tailspin and young people queueing at Dublin Airport, Australian visas in hand, Cullen questioned the work ethic of young Irish people and suggested you’d be better working ‘for nothing’ than staying in bed all day. He got everyone’s backs up, young and old, but the wider debate was interesting. The young people on the same programme were essentially saying: “We went to college, worked really hard, got our good degrees and specific skills for an economy we were told was hungry for talent, now we’re on the dole and nobody’s hiring.”

Returning to the incident, it struck me Cullen couldn’t be alone. Perhaps badly worded, his ‘work for nothing’ prescription might have been merely an ad absurdum articulation of an assumption seldom openly expressed but already baked into how wages are configured in the modern economy. That assumption is this: if you’re sufficiently passionate about a field, you’ll be willing to sacrifice something to pursue that interest. Included in that something is money.

Earlier this week, Barcelona secured the transfer from Liverpool of the young and fabulously talented Brazilian footballer Philippe Coutinho. Alongside other eye-watering figures reported (£142m transfer fee; new wages of £200k per week), the figure of £9m was widely cited as the sum Coutinho had himself ‘paid to move to Barca’. Read beyond the headline and you’ll see that in fact Coutinho agreed to a slightly smaller salary than the one initially tabled in order to help make up the shortfall in transfer fee. Walk with me briefly through the logic of this.

There are three main parties to the transfer of a football player: Player, Buying Club and Selling Club. What appears to have happened is that the Buying Club made a combined offer of wages to the Player and transfer fee to the Selling Club and decreed that that combined price was all the money with which they would part. Then the Selling Club asked for a greater fee. So now, rather than increase the overall sum to be shelled out, the Buying Club makes the case to the Player that they've gone as high as they can go and the only way to meet the Selling Club's demand is to reduce the wage offer to the Player- you cool with that PC? Rather than demand the club cough up more and risk the whole deal going south, the Player ends up accepting less than the initial offer to them: less to the tune of £9m over the course of the contract. Now, in this case, that sacrifice is sweetened by the overall wage increase, but nonetheless it's a leveraging of some other incentives the player has in order to forego financial incentives. It's a tactic that has now worked for Barcelona on both Coutinho and Cesc Fabregas that we're aware of and probably others. So passionate were these players about the prospect of moving to this prestigious venue, they were willing to what the market initially indicated his time effort and skills to be worth.

Essentially, the same principle drives the world of internships, whether unpaid or underpaid. A combination of the promise of future earning potential and the opportunity to pursue one’s preferred field is offered in place of normal remuneration. I, the intern, offer my labour, time, effort and skills, and forego the money I might get elsewhere because this is the place I want to work. Ireland tried introducing a mass state internship scheme called Job-bridge and one of the things that did for it was that some of the internships advertised sounded menial and far from prestigious, leading to accusations of exploitation. Again this is interesting, because the implication is that if it’s a company that’s cooler than a dog salon the position doesn’t involve sweeping animal hairs, it’s not exploitative for that more prestigious techy or marketing company to have people work for pittance or nowt.

At this point I have more questions than answers. I’ve used ‘Passion Premium’ for want of a recognised term for monetary rewards sacrificed for the sake of working within a chosen field. I don’t know how prevalent such sacrifices are or how much extra income they would sum to across a given economy. I would love to know and would love to know what data one could base an estimate on.

To what extent is this something new?
One suspects high prestige employers have always traded on the ‘opportunity’ of working for them when setting out their wage structure. Plus, we’ve long had the idea of a vocation. That seems like the same basic idea: taking on particular work as a life choice, not for the remuneration, but for the love of it, the calling to teaching, nursing, the clergy or the arts. Even The Beatles didn’t earn much of their record sales under their initial deal with Apple. They probably just felt lucky and excited to get a deal and signed for whatever and, in the music business, I’m certain that happens all the time.

What is new though is mass education and its offspring, the proliferation of specialisations within education. The number of subjects, qualifications and degrees on offer, particularly through higher education is multiplying by the decade. Take Engineering degrees, where it used to be Civil, Mechanical or Computer, now there’s Environmental Engineering, Biomechanical, Structural, Aerospace and beyond. From teaching on a niche degree programme, it seems that part of how such programmes sustain themselves is repeatedly demonstrating the importance of the subject matter and the skills at hand. You won’t get much reaction from students telling them that “here, this is pretty dull stuff but believe me there’s a job in it for you, a nice tidy desk job that’ll get you home ahead of the rush”. In other words, inculcating passion about one’s specialism has become part of the educational production line and business model.

The result of all that is that web design can be a vocation; event management can be a calling; so can digital marketing, consultancy, sound design. This throws up a further question that shapes how we look back over a decade of very volatile employment across many countries: to what extent have there been a lack of jobs per se versus a lack of alignment between the jobs available and the ones people are trained for and want. An answer would be really instructive to educators as it would point towards a need to lessen the focus on what makes a given degree programme unique and to return to an emphasis on the skills and values are transferable across lots of jobs.

Is any of this intrinsically problematic? What’s the problem with inculcating passion in the workforce? There isn’t one. The problem arises if a worker’s passion can be used to suppress their wage. Furthermore, if passion is part of the wage equations, it could produce some perverse results. Consider this thought experiment. You’re a medium to large employer (congratulations) and you’ve just interviewed two similarly qualified and able candidates. One seemed more passionate about the role. Intuitively if passion were a tie-breaker, you take the more passionate one, right? If there’s only one position likely to be created in this area and all else is genuinely equal, then yes. However, if you knew that a more junior position in the same area was coming on stream, it’s not inconceivable that you might have some medium term incentive to take on the less passionate one, in the strong hope that the more passionate candidate will pay the premium and accept the lower position. In the longer run, this could lead to organisations becoming unbalanced with more rationalist thinkers further up the chain of command and the true believers making them coffee and being made to feel grateful for the privilege. This same rationale could be applied to promotion. No need to promote Philippe over there, he loves this place. Old Zlatan on the other hand… maybe better give him a reason to stay.

What am I suggesting then? That we all become hyper-rationalist market positivists? That we ignore our passions and go right to where we’ll get the greatest financial return for our labour? That we hold out until someone says the magic number we know our time is worth? Of course not. I’m sure even the most avowed believer in economic doctrine would concede that there are non-monetary dividends to one’s labour, that there is utility to be accounted for in the type of commute we have, what kind of clothes the dress code permits, in the interactions we enjoy with colleagues and, yes, in whether we’re doing something we give a toss about.

What I’m saying isn’t abandon thy passions. Rather be mindful of what makes you attracted to certain kinds of work. Be mindful of what you’re being asked to trade away for doing what you love. Be very wary of assuming the company you work for or aspire to work for is the only workplace you’d get the opportunity you have or that you’d be happy in.

Mostly I’m curious. If there is an ongoing discussion about this, I haven’t hit upon it and I’m curious how real or prevalent Passion Premiums (Premia?) are. Maybe it’s the opposite; maybe in some industries, employers are the ones competing for the scarce resource that is employees who care. Maybe they’re the ones paying a premium to see a spark in someone’s eye when they ask them where they see themselves in five years time. Either which way, reach out, let me know what’s going on out there.