Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Modern Religion of Workism


The Atlantic - "Why Americans Care About Work So Much"
By Derek Thompson

"Rail and telegraphs made new kinds of businesses possible, including department stores, mail-order houses, and the national oil and steel behemoths. Large companies required massive, multilevel bureaucracies. And within these laborious labyrinths, workers could ascend from grunt to manager to executive. These corporations invented the modern journey of a career, that narrative arc bending toward a set of precious initials: VP, SVP, CEO.

As the managerial revolution created a sense of professional progress, the decline of organized religion and social integration in the 20th century left many Americans bereft of any sense of spiritual progress. For some, work rose to fill the void. Many highly educated workers in the white-collar economy feel that their job cannot be “just a job” and that their career cannot be “just a career”: Their job must be their calling. 


I call this new religion “workism.” Workism is not a simple evil or virtue; rather, it’s a complex phenomenon. It is rooted in the belief that work can provide everything we have historically expected from organized religion: community, meaning, self-actualization. And it is characterized by the irony that, in a time of declining trust in so many institutions, we expect more than ever from the companies that employ us—and that, in an age of declining community attachments, the workplace has, for many, become the last community standing. This might be why more companies today feel obligated to serve on the front lines in political debates and culture-war battles.

The credo that work should be the centerpiece of one’s identity quietly governs several stages of modern life. For many children and their parents, it has created an obsession with educational achievement that is igniting an anxiety crisis. For adults, it leads to overwork in the labor force and less time focused on family, friends, and personal pursuits.

In some cases, the worship of work squeezes out other values and relationships that are more conducive to a healthy life and community. In an era of diminishing attachments, career and work sometimes seem like the last truly universal virtues. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, roughly half of Americans said that the most important part of a fulfilling life is work that provides joy and meaning. Less than a third said the same about being in a committed relationship or having children. Well, one might say, that’s just one report. But this week, a widely circulated Wall Street Journal survey found that traditional values such as patriotism, marriage, and community seem to be falling out of favor. Although the headline and viral graphs almost certainly exaggerate the degree of decline, the underlying survey found that one virtue finished first, above tolerance, community, and even self-fulfillment: “hard work.”"

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