Workism Is Making Americans Miserable
For the college-educated elite, work has become something of a religion, promising transcendence and community, Derek Thompson argued last month. He called this phenomenon workism:
“What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
By and large, Thompson wrote, workism has failed to deliver on its promises.
As a college student wading through the waters of choosing a major and the voices saying “follow your passion,” this article resonated with me. Being surrounded by people who are in love with their major led me to feel confused, as if I am failing by not being in love with mine. Specifically, the line that mentioned how white-collar work is intangible and its product seems invisible made sense. I struggle with answering friends’ questions of what will I do as a consultant with a business information technology degree. I also enjoyed that this article emphasizes that it is okay to have your work be a currency, and what we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living. It reaffirmed what my aunt would often tell me: It is okay to find a job that will pay for your passion. She is my living example of this viewpoint. This is a concept that our generation should come to accept as another beautiful and successful way to live life.
I’m 27 years old and definitely agree that there has been so much pressure placed upon our generation in a world where “workist” values seem to be so prevalent. It’s not enough to find a job; it has to be the all-important job where you can say over and over again, “I am my task; I’m one with my task.”
I think social media also produced this weird effect on our consciousness that if somehow we don’t gain celebrity status associated with our careers, we are all failures. Unfortunately there aren’t enough magazine covers and months in a year for all of us to eventually get our own spread.
I greatly enjoyed Derek Thompson’s debunking of American “workism.” But “workism” did not just develop in the last century. Its roots go back to the Protestant Reformation.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the highest form of leisure was divine contemplation and philosophy. Christianity redeemed the dignity of manual labor somewhat (since Jesus himself worked), and hardworking monks transformed the European landscape, draining swamps and bringing new land under cultivation. But it was the Protestants who fully dethroned leisure. They created the idea of secular work as a “calling,” as Max Weber noted in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The idea of leisure as the highest form of culture survived in the Victorian era’s religion of art and the self-anointing of bohemian artists and intellectuals as culture-bearers. But in the 20th century, artists and poets themselves became professionalized, elite workers, recognized with grants and tenured positions.
Overcoming “workism” means rehabilitating leisure as something more meaningful than mere distraction or recharging from the workday. But that requires a complete renovation of culture.
David Aaron Murray
St. Louis, Mo.
This passage stood out the most to me:
In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning. In an agrarian or early-manufacturing economy, where tens of millions of people perform similar routinized tasks, there are no delusions about the higher purpose of, say, planting corn or screwing bolts: It’s just a job.
I am British, by the way, and it’s the same here.
I am a social-science graduate, and have many times touched the hem of those “callings.” Yet in late middle age, I know for sure that I do not want to sacrifice my soul or brain to a “calling”-type job.
I work on the ground in manufacturing, where although there is more brain power and more meetings required than many may realize, for the most part one is dealing with tangible, hands-on activities.
Many colleagues and friends have questioned this choice, urging me to find a more “heady” job. My retort was that a heady job comes with much headache.
When I look at the office workers at my factory, I think I would not swap my life for theirs, not for any money.
For decades I have felt that the human race, at least in the West, has become detached from our roots. Before we can “self-actualize,” we need food and shelter in order to survive, which thankfully blue-collar workers still provide us with.
Beyond that, things have become way too complicated.
Ashford, Kent, United Kingdom
As a 30-something medical professional, I find myself thinking about this topic frequently. Work has definitely become our identity. At every corner of my professional development, I’m met with others who stress the importance of achieving the next big thing. This could be another degree, another credential, another position within an organization. It’s exhausting but, at least in the medical world, it seems unavoidable. The answer I’ve found is within my faith. I’m slowly beginning to realize that over the past few years I’ve placed my hope in these things but, as the author writes: “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”
This article really helped articulate why I used to feel the way I did about my career aspirations (i.e., my “calling”). My younger self had the intention of getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology immediately after college and beginning a successful career helping others while simultaneously being recognized for my prestigious degree. Instead, I married my college sweetheart and began moving around the country with him as he served in the military. I did end up getting a master’s degree, but the work you can do with an M.S. is far less than what can be achieved with a doctorate. According to the work ethos of today, I should feel disappointed, unfulfilled, and even ashamed that as a Millennial woman I put my dreams aside, for a man no less. And I did used to feel that way for a while. I grew up believing that the most important decision you can make is what you will be when you grow up. A military spouse struggling to find quality work as she moves every two to three years doesn’t quite make the top of that list. A Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate surely shouldn’t end up that way. What a waste. And yet, I’m so fulfilled and happy now. I have a wonderful marriage, fun and engaging hobbies, time and energy to travel the world on adventures, and a current job that I’m satisfied enough with, even if it’s not as prestigious as Ph.D. work. To think that the meaning of my life should be defined by the emails that I send or the meetings I attend seems laughable now. I have no regrets about the path I’ve chosen. I work at my job so that I can afford to do the things I love with the people I love to be with, and I certainly don’t need a Ph.D. to do that.
Mountain View, Calif.
Derek Thompson’s article is very interesting and explains some other phenomena of American life—people overly devoted to their work have no time for their communities, their families, or healthy social and athletic lives. I am so grateful that someone warned me 50 years ago that the messy process of creating my life would not be cured by work devotion—that I had to create my own order. That advice helped me to contribute to more causes than my employers’, and to weather the disappointments of the workplace. Some of my good fortune comes from my Christian faith that our lives are creations of God, not pawns of corporations. I cannot imagine how depressing it would be to believe in a corporation and then be laid off, as happens routinely in the Rust Belt. There is an important place for work in our lives, but it should not be the center of our identities.
Mount Vernon, Ohio
Having spent the Great Recession mostly underemployed and often unemployed, all I was told was to find my passion and follow it and everything would fall into place—if I could just find my passion! My passions, such as they are, are not going to get me meaningful, fulfilling, or well-paid employment. Neither is pretending that I am passionate about something that might provide employment, when I am not passionate about it at all. And why would I want to make something I enjoy work? As I saw it, it was a recipe for disaster. However well meant the advice was, after a while it made me want to leap from the tallest building. Your words on this topic made me want to cry with relief.
New York, N.Y.
Derek Thompson’s piece on the ascent of “workism” has a lot to do with the way people are educated in this country. In their pursuit of relevance, universities have turned themselves into glorified trade schools, with the traditional liberal arts education being passed onto a siding. If people, especially men, were taught more literature, art, and philosophy, their minds would have many more interesting precincts to explore, and perhaps their compulsion to spend more time at their desks would be relieved simply by the availability of more choices. There is nothing wrong with hard work, but there is nothing wrong with leaving time for the pursuit of beauty and insight either.
For several years I have touted the mantra that the primary religion in America has become money. This article correctly takes that principle to a more root level, identifying the culprit as work.
I am one of those intrinsically motivated workers, not needing external markers of success, and valuing leisure time. (Regrettably, I have not always practiced the work/leisure time balance that I value.) I have been disturbed by what I see in my country related to our cultural relationship with work, but could never really conceptualize the problem. Derek Thompson has done so magnificently.
Americans should receive legally mandated parental leave; the government should pay for universal child care and early education; health care should be provided by the state, not employers; and welfare benefits should be less contingent on work requirements. Yet ensuring that people are not reliant on their employers just to live a minimally comfortable life does not mean that we should reject work as something that can provide life meaning. In fact, instituting such policies would allow people to find more meaningful work by making it easier to switch jobs and devaluing the importance of job benefits relative to job fulfillment.
The caveat, of course, is something that the author rightly points out: Not all people have the luxury or luck of finding a fulfilling job or career. Just like some people don’t have the luxury of unflappable religious faith or the luck of rewarding relationships with family and friends. And we certainly shouldn’t punish through poor public policy those for whom work is not central to their lives, whether because of choice or otherwise. Yet to acknowledge the limits of workism’s applicability isn’t to say it can’t be worthwhile for some.
New York, N.Y.
Derek Thompson replies:
I’ve been blown away by the response to my workism article and am deeply grateful to everybody who’s read it and grappled with the piece—which was, frankly, an act of thinking through a phenomenon more than a confident diagnosis. I’d like to thank these writers—and the many who emailed me directly—for putting the meat of analysis, historical thought, and personal anecdote on the bones of my provocation.