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Work as a religion: The problem with ‘workism’ and its critics

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If you’re a young person in America, you’ve undoubtedly been bombarded by calls to “follow your passion,” “pursue your dreams,” or “do what you love and love what you do.” Such slogans have led many toward a renewed appreciation of the meaning that can be found in mundane economic activity—and in many ways, rightly so.

But in and by themselves, do these sugary mantras truly represent the path to vocational clarity, economic abundance, personal fulfillment, and human flourishing?

In an increasingly secular age—where traditional religions are being replaced by a series of “new atheisms”—a healthy appreciation for individual gifts and economic activity can easily be over-elevated to a personal worship of work based on our own priorities for “self-actualization.”

In an essay for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson puts his finger on this trend, observing that “everybody worships something,” and “workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production,” Thompson writes. “They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.” According to Thompson, it’s an approach that is failing to deliver. “Workism is making Americans miserable,” he writes.

Indeed, if this is our new definition of work—a pathway to fulfilling our “dreams of self-actualization”—Thompson is surely correct and society is “setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout”:

Our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office. It’s hard to self-actualize on the job if you’re a cashier—one of the most common occupations in the U.S.—and even the best white-collar roles have long periods of stasis, boredom, or busywork. This mismatch between expectations and reality is a recipe for severe disappointment, if not outright misery, and it might explain why rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. are “substantially higher” than they were in the 1980s, according to a 2014 study.

In response, Thompson recommends that we simply make work “less central,” turning our focus instead to more leisure. In order to do so, he says, we must not envision work as a path to “self-actualization,” but return instead to “the old-fashioned goal of working”: “buying free time.” (It is hard to imagine how “buying free time” is somehow more fulfilling or less self-centered than “buying status and stuff.”)

According to Thompson, we have only two options: (1) a hollow “workism” defined by self-indulgence, self-actualization, and personal “success,” or (2) a materialistic escapism, wherein our work is simply about “buying free time”—a means to living large on the weekends or securing a cozy retirement.

But what if work—or finding “meaning,” in general—isn’t about us in the first place? What if we were meant to imagine our work not through the lens of our personal “passions” and “needs” but according to a selfless love for those around us?

“Our working puts us in the service of others,” writes theologian Lester DeKoster. “The civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind… Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding.”

When we understand this basic reality, we see the foolishness of trying to recover our society through surface level tweaks (Thompson promotes policies “like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance.”) Likewise, we see the irrelevance of petty debates about the merits of a 40-hour work week vs. a 20-hour work week, or an early retirement vs. a later retirement, and so on. We see the basic blindness behind top-level tweaks to wages and the nit-picking over educational degrees and pedigrees.

It all misses the basic source of our growing cultural anxiety: worship of the self.

In his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, DeKoster spots the mindset that Thompson both recognizes as a problem, yet ultimately fails to escape:

All of our efforts to endow our lives with meaning are apt to come up short and disappointing. Why? Because all our passion to fill the meaning-vacuum through multiplied activity in the home, the church, the community, or whatever stumbles over that big block of every week’s time we have to spend on the seeming meaninglessness of the job. The spare-time charities cannot tip the scales. Redoubling our efforts only obscures the goal.

We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation. What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.

And so it is!

Rather than being torn between two false idols of self-actualization—the one in the workplace and the one on the weekend—we should instead shift our imaginations toward a deeper and fuller vision of work across all of life, one that has little regard for our own self-indulgence and operates, instead, according to a bigger picture of neighbor-love and human destiny.

Once we realize that all is a gift—including the work of our hands—we will no longer strive after materialistic means, whether for status and fame or our own leisurely end. To the contrary, our rest will lead us to work, our work will lead us to creative service, and our creative service will lead us to more lovemore fellowship, and more flourishing.

Image: Businessman, Despair, www_slon_pics (Pixabay License)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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