Over at The Altantic staff writer Derek Thompson has an almost theological deconstruction of modern work: ‘Workism is Making Americans Miserable’.
Here’s a proposal and a question.
Proposal: Idolatry is alive and well in the 21st century West.
Question: If so, what would you say are some examples of modern idolatries in Western culture?
Thompson makes a good case, from a non-religious perspective, that much modern work has become idolatrous.
Some clips from his article:
THE GOSPEL OF WORK
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
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.
Perhaps long hours are part of an arms race for status and income among the moneyed elite. Or maybe the logic here isn’t economic at all. It’s emotional—even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves. “For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play,” the economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
What’s more, in a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95 percent of teens said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including “helping other people who are in need” (81 percent) or getting married (47 percent). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.
“We’ve created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work,” says Oren Cass, the author of the book The Once and Future Worker. “We tell young people that their work should be their passion. ‘Don’t give up until you find a job that you love!’ we say. ‘You should be changing the world!’ we tell them. That is the message in commencement addresses, in pop culture, and frankly, in media, including The Atlantic.”
But 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.
Thompson draws out important realities. Modern white-collar work has few tangibles. And so modern worker turn to social media to make manifest their accomplishments. It is a world of metrics, of followers, of likes, retweets, friends, viewers, of success, of competitive achievement.
More and more, the competitive market economy reaches into every area of our lives. Work, for many, is ruthlessly competitive – it is fellow workers against whom we compete. Such a world is hard to opt-out of – each of us is pushed towards ‘selling ourselves’ in order to survive and prosper.
Workism offers a perilous trade-off … A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshippers. Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.
Thompson suggests, in effect, ‘de-idolising’ work by making it serve our best interests rather than the other way around – making time for relationships, hobbies and basically having a life. He wants to see public policy put in frameworks that reorientate cultural priorities.
Which all raises a further interesting question that will have to take another post ..
What does it look like to de-idolise work from a Christian perspective?