Report finds work has become the new religion

On the job: WeWork offices are decorated with “do what you love”. Is it good advice? © WeWork

Teenagers say having a job they enjoy is twice as important as getting married or having children, according to a major new American survey. But anxiety and depression are rising steeply.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It is a question you have probably been asked countless times. If you are not sure, you have probably had the follow-up questions: “What are you good at? What do enjoy? What is your passion?”

As the old saying goes: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But has this been bad advice all along? In an essay in The Atlantic, the writer Derek Thompson argues that “workism” is the new American religion, and that it is making people “miserable”.

He defines workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”

He cites a new survey by Pew Research, in which 95% of US teenagers say that “having a job or career they enjoy” will be “extremely or very important” to them when they grow up. Only half say the same about having money, and less than half say they care about getting married or having children.

And yet not everyone will find a job they enjoy. So what then? Even if they do, there will probably be “long periods of stasis, boredom or busywork.” After all, jobs are not there to make people happy; they are there to complete tasks, solve problems, earn money or all three. High expectations often do not meet reality.

In the end, a culture that idolises work “is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment and inevitable burnout,” Thompson says.

He is not the only one to reach this conclusion. Last month, The New York Times quoted an investor who earned $1.2 million a year: “I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he said. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return?”

In January, a Buzzfeed News article about “millennial burnout” went viral. “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time,” wrote Anne Helen Peterson. “Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it.”

Work it out

Is there really anything wrong with wanting to enjoy your job? After all, the average British person will spend 84,171 hours of their life working. Surely it is better to spend those hours doing something that gives you purpose? Or is it better to make the most of your free time — in other words, to live for the weekend?

And has work really replaced religion in rich Western countries? Certainly, traditional religion is declining in the US and Europe. Has this left people searching for meaning and purpose in their lives? If so, can we find it through our work? Or should we be looking to nature? Family? Art? Travel? Ourselves?

You Decide

  1. If you had to choose, would you rather have a job that you enjoy? Or one that is well paid?
  2. What makes something a “religion”?

Activities

  1. List the top five things you want from your ideal job. These can be big and broad (“a sense of purpose”) or small and specific (“ping pong tables in the office”). Share your list with the rest of the class.
  2. Having thought about the arguments in this article, rewrite the advice in the second paragraph. Start with the same three words: “Choose a job…”

Some People Say...

“Work without love is slavery.”

Mother Teresa

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thompson’s theory is based on American data which shows that rich men are working more hours than they did in the past, even as the average work year for Americans has shrunk by 200 hours since 1950. “No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year,” he writes. He also argues that, in the US, “workism” has been made law. For example, you get more benefits if you are in or searching for work.
What do we not know?
Whether the idea of work as religion also applies in the UK. Europeans work fewer hours and have longer holidays than Americans — but in Britain, benefits are also designed to encourage people to find a job. And religion has declined even more in the UK than it has in the US. What has it been replaced with?

Word Watch

Old saying
The origin of the saying is unclear. Although it is sometimes attributed to Confucius or Mark Twain, the earliest reference found by the website Quote Investigator is in Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1982.
Pew Research
Based on interviews of US teenagers aged 13-17, published in February 2019.
Burnout
Defined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”
Millennial
This loosely includes anyone born in the last two decades of the 20th century.
Average
According to a survey commissioned by the Association of Accounting Technicians, published in October 2018.
Declining
A report published last year found that the majority of young people (aged 16-29) in 12 European countries are not religious. It was based on data from the European Social Survey. In America, the percentage of people with no religion in 1990 was 8%. By 2017, it had tripled to 22%, according to the General Social Survey.