Is Choosing a Career You Love a Luxury?

career choice luxury
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Unpaid internships.

Labors of love.

Jobs that don’t pay much but make you feel good.

We’d all probably love to take a job like this, but can you actually afford to?

Here’s the thing about money. Its relation to happiness is a gray area. Psychologists and economists go back forth on the issue, often coming to complex and sometimes contradicting conclusions. While there seems to be a positive correlation between wealth and happiness, this doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

I’m a simple kind of person. I figure that I can be happy as long as I have the means to pay my bills, feed my face, and fund my hobbies. Would an extra zero at the end of my paycheck make me happier?

Yes. In a vague sense, I’d say that it probably would. As someone who grew up in a working-class household, I went through college looking forward to the day that I could help elevate my family using the financial opportunities afforded to me by my future career. My family sacrificed a lot to make sure that I had everything that I needed in order to be successful while operating with few financial means. What kid wouldn’t want to pay their family back for that kind of love?

Maybe Damien. But he was the Antichrist, so…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams to do things that don’t traditionally earn you a lot of money. I used to imagine that someday it’d just be me and my camera, traveling the world and telling stories of the communities that matter to me. I’d plan trips to Egypt where I’d study the hieroglyphs and become an expert in ancient art. I’d think of these things and I was happy.

But wait. Doesn’t that contradict what I said before? How can I take care of my family and aspire to do things that don’t pay well? I do want to be financially stable, but I also want to be happy.

I wouldn’t take a well-paying job that I hated for myself, but would I take one for my family?

I’m sure that I’m not the first person to ask this question. While I’ve been lucky enough to never have to answer it, many are stuck struggling with the solution.

When I was in school, I met a number of working-class students who took work-study jobs during the year in order to make ends meet. The thing that many of our fellow students, financial aid office, and career services center didn’t realize was that even though these students had their own financial burdens, they were sometimes sending a lot of that money back home to support the families that they’d left behind—not the other way around.

While there are many paid internships in the field of art, music, and media production out there, there are even more that only offer school credit or “professional” experience. In many industries, the labor of unpaid interns has been taken advantage of, with students not being compensated for work for which a salaried employee would typically be paid. Recent lawsuits such as the Black Swan case may be changing this practice.

Telling students and recent grads in this situation to explore what they love when what they love doesn’t pay is lackluster advice. Things like unpaid summer internships simply aren’t financially feasible. Summer jobs aren’t just opportunities to build up their résumés. These students need opportunities that pay, as earning money while gaining experience during their time off may be the only way that they manage to pay for expenses incurred during the academic year.

None of this is to say that the plight of the working-class graduate is hopeless. It’s not! I’m a dreamer, remember? I believe in the possibility of anything. Like, I’m pretty sure that I can still make it as an Olympian and I don’t even play any sports.

Choosing a career can be tricky. Although it may not be your dream, the “right” job for you may be the opportunity that is most financially responsible for you and those that you support. You may not have the privilege of turning down that high salaried job at the bank, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring your passion with you in other ways.

  • Talk to your family. There’s a lot of pressure on first-generation students or working-class grads to make lots of money—to be doctors and lawyers instead of painters and poets.

While I strive to give back to my family, they’ve never asked me to and get by fine without me. I know that I am free to indulge in my fantasy careers, even if I sometimes feel obligated to do something that pays a lot more.

Have a conversation with your folks about whether or not they actually expect you to help take care of the household once you get a job. You may find that the pressure to make extra money to send home is coming more from yourself than from them.

  • Define what “going without” means to you. Does being on a budget mean that you only eat out three nights a week… or that you never buy name brand groceries?

One person’s version of roughing it may be very different from your own. Find your comfort zone in terms of what you can and can’t live without. This will make the decisions easier when deciding what level of salary you’re willing to accept.

If that fun job that doesn’t pay much is still enough to support you and still leave a little for the other people in your life, then you’re good to go!

  • Compromise. Tell your family that you’re happy to help them out for a set time period, but that you don’t want to work at Corporation Z forever. Brainstorm ways that you can all work together to put your family in a better position. Perhaps there is a way to maneuver so that all of the responsibility isn’t on you.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure that your sacrifices make sense. Your family would probably prefer for you to be in a happy place mentally than paying their cable bill. Doing for others is noble, but never at the expense of your own health and safety.

If you’re like me, your personal happiness is much more highly correlated with your family’s well-being than money. Still, when we tell students to follow their dreams, to do what makes them happy, it’s not often that we consider that some people simply can’t afford to. Sometimes it is not just a single individual’s financial future that is contingent upon making a job decision, but that of an entire family.

Homework time! Career choice may not seem like a luxury, but it is. Be aware that the livelihood of many families sometimes falls on a single young person and that the lofty suggestions above aren’t possible for everyone. In a society where money and happiness are sometimes synonymous, working class students often end up in the gray areas.

If you are someone with the privilege of making a career choice based solely on what you want to do, ask yourself: Would you choose money for your family over your own happiness?

If you’ve had to answer this question, share your story with others. Let your experience be known. You’re probably not the only one that you know who is struggling with the answer.

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