Should you work for passion or for money?

Job seekers attending a job fair in Manila last month. While young people are often advised to follow their passion, some financial writers think that is bad career advice. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Job seekers attending a job fair in Manila last month. While young people are often advised to follow their passion, some financial writers think that is bad career advice. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

In deciding on your career, it is best to balance your personal interests and your earning ability

It's scary how much we will need for retirement, and we should jolly well start earning and saving more as early as we can.

That was the gist of the feedback I received after my column two weeks ago which said that a fresh graduate would need $1 million to retire.

"I really need $1 million to retire? OMG stress," a work contact messaged me the day after the article.

A colleague told me that, in fact, my figure was too optimistic. I had assumed that the graduate would need $2,000 a month after retirement but it could be much more.

"That's when the health problems kick in, and the medical costs will be expensive," he explained.

Regardless, people should start saving for retirement as early as possible - or as the saying goes, from the first pay cheque.

For most of us as salary earners, our jobs play an important role: Our wages are the base to build our wealth and retirement funds.

But the clock is ticking as the "golden years" for accumulating money won't last forever.

"After the age of 25 your brain starts slowing down. What becomes easy when you are 24 years old becomes difficult at 40 years old," says an article on Investment Moats, a local financial website.

The website adds that older workers become expensive, with higher health risks and lower energy levels. This makes them "an attractive retrenchment proposition versus the vibrant 30-year-old".

"Globalisation has made your job harsher, competitive and somewhat unstable," adds the site, which is written by investment blogger Kyith Ng.

I once took a taxi driven by a man in his 50s, who lost his job as a human resources manager when his company replaced him with a sprightly 30-year-old.

"I've been at only one company since I graduated," the cabby said bitterly, as he navigated the heavy traffic that he clearly did not enjoy.

"And now they find this young guy who is much cheaper, and they replace me like that."

There is always the risk of being deemed surplus to requirements as we age. So how do we as young adults make the best of this limited window, to make hay while the sun shines?

'Follow your passion'

One common piece of career advice given to young ones is to "follow your passion" - a mantra espoused by some of the richest people in the world.

"If you just work on stuff that you like and are passionate about, you don't have to have a master plan with how things will play out," said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, ranked the fourth-richest person on the planet, said: "Do what you're passionate about. If you do this, there will be few people competing or running faster than you."

Unfortunately, the idea has also been pooh-poohed by many financial writers.

"Following your passion will send you to the poorhouse," screamed an article in Forbes last year.

The Huffington Post was rather less dramatic, but still ran a feature on "Why 'follow your passion' is bad career advice".

The gist of the articles is that people are probably unwilling to pay for what you are passionate about.

It just happens that Mr Zuckerberg's passion is in creating a website that more than a billion people use and that companies are willing to place ads on.

Mr Buffett's passion is even more lucrative - studying companies and investing.

But for most of us, we would not get very far if we just went straight with following our passions.

I remember my Primary Five maths teacher who told us that his passion was soccer.

That was the first time I heard of "passion" - as an almost mythical concept of something that gives you so much energy and meaning, it's as if you were born to pursue it.

My teacher was passionate about soccer, as seen by his willingness to change into sports gear and chase after a ball with a bunch of rowdy 11-year-olds.

But soccer was not his job. Rather, he earned his living teaching maths - something he was also good at, and which the Government was willing to pay him good money for.

Salary and career progression

So we should look beyond passion, and at salary as well - not just the monthly amount but also the amount of bonus expected.

The Ministry of Education publishes the average salaries of fresh university graduates every year so you can use that as a gauge when evaluating pay. As you climb the ladder there are other organisations that provide data for experienced staff.

It is also important to find jobs that allow you to learn skills and progress in your career.

A well-known example is in the accounting sector. Fresh graduates know that they don't get amazing starting salaries in an audit firm while having to put up with very demanding hours.

But if they stick it out, the future can be bright if they make it as a partner of an accounting firm, or as the chief financial officer of a company.

As you look at these pragmatic factors, a level of interest is still necessary. The career will not be sustainable if you dread every workday.

The best tip sounds the most boring one - find a balance between a job that pays well, has good career progression and that you are interested in.

I wouldn't use the word "passion", but you will be more likely to succeed in a job that you find meaning in, as you will have more energy and initiative.

The Harvard Business Review argued in 2012 that you will have more job satisfaction only after you become good at it. "Expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy - and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years," it stated.

So here's the nub of the issue: In your career, it's best to balance your personal interests and earning ability. The clock is ticking as we squirrel away those monthly pay cheques to save for retirement.

Is $1 million enough? Whatever it is, I hope I won't find myself in the same situation as the taxi driver when I get older.

jonkwok@sph.com.sg