Workaholics in the Hands of a Firing God

“When work becomes the primary arbiter of identity, purpose, worth, and community in our lives, […]

David Zahl / 2.26.19

“When work becomes the primary arbiter of identity, purpose, worth, and community in our lives, it has ceased to function as employment and begun to function as a religion. Or at least we have made it responsible for providing the very things to which we used to look to God.”

Those two lines are taken from a certain book that drops on April 2nd (#ryhmeswithvelocity), and with each passing day, it’s getting harder to wait for the release. Especially when articles like Andrew Sullivan’s recent “America’s New Religions” or Erin Griffith’s “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” keep flitting across my desk–both great pieces that approximate significant portions of what I’ve spent the past year putting together in Seculosity. I guess this is what getting scooped feels like… Course, the truth is public domain, and maybe I should take it as an encouraging sign that seculosity is more than just a semi-clever word.

We referenced Sullivan’s deconstruction of political tribalism in a weekender, and CJ wrote expertly about The Cathedral of Hustle that Griffith describes, but here comes a new entry from The Atlantic, “The Religion of Workism” by Derek Thompson. He writes:

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…

While I appreciate the new -ism, I wonder if it loses something by omitting the letters A-H-O-L. One of the main reasons I avoid the language of ‘worship’ in Seculosity is because an idolatry framework tends to imply that life is simply a matter of finding the right thing to worship and doing so, rather than the continued frustration of venerating the wrong thing(s), despite knowing better. Furthermore, we fail to recognize that what we’re actually worshiping when we obsess over food or work or politics is not the thing itself but how that thing makes us feel—if only for a moment–which is… Righteous AKA Justified. Calling it “workaholism” at least acknowledges the compulsive aspect.

Then again, I’m a little hesitant to use the word ‘religion’ when it comes to work(ahol)ism, as there does seem to be a discernible difference between grounding your hope in something material as opposed to spiritual. Thus, the neologism “seculosity.” Thompson continues:

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.

For today’s workists, anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life. “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…

One of the benefits of being an observant Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian is that these God-fearing worshippers put their faith in an intangible and unfalsifiable force of goodness. But work is tangible, and success is often falsified. To make either the centerpiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power…

The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion. Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed, tired and bitter.

As if by orchestration, Charles Duhigg’s NY Times mega-sympathetic piece “Wealthy, Successful, and Miserable” appeared over the weekend as well, reinforcing Thompson’s analysis of a schema that promises functional salvation but delivers the opposite. [Perhaps someone is animating the zeitgest after all…]. Back to The Atlantic, and the climactic paragraph where Thompson injects some vulnerability:

My sense of identity is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity that bouts of writer’s block can send me into an existential funk that can spill over into every part of my life. And I know enough writers, tech workers, marketers, artists, and entrepreneurs to know that my affliction is common, especially within a certain tranche of the white-collar workforce.

The point here–and I can feel myself yawning inside as I write this–is not that work is bad, or careerism is necessarily dehumanizing. The point is simply that religious observance hasn’t faded apace “secularization” so much as migrated—and we’ve got the anxiety to prove it. We are seldom not in church, often many different ones at the same time (St Elon’s of Perpetual Productivity, Apostle Maguire’s Soulmate Chapel, First Station of the CrossFit, etc.). Of course, never-ending church attendance is only a problem to the extent that the ‘gospel’ on offer at all of these rings such a similar note of, well, law. Blessed Are Those Who Perform (So Perform, Dammit!).

The risk in writing so relentlessly about seculosity, at least from a Christian point of view, is that I might convey that I’m somehow above it, rather than a co-belligerent and co-beneficiary. Make no mistake: like most avenues of seculosity, work(ahol)ism is something that can be–and often is–pursued alongside explicitly religious forms of devotion. Which means that no one, by virtue of how they self-identify (or spend their Sunday mornings), is exempt from the diagnosis, least of all yours truly. The most public Christian you know is likely just as ensconced in some form of seculosity as anyone else. That doesn’t make their belief insincere. It’s simply evidence that they are subject to the same conflicting temptations and fears as you are. In other words, I ran a super involved college retreat this past weekend, so what am I doing writing some lengthy treatise the day afterward? Sigh.

So where’s the hope? Well, deconstructing (and poking fun!) at our secular pieties is certainly part of disarming them, and a good start. But it will also only take us so far. Indeed, the answer to all our compulsive working and accomplishing and doing cannot be a sanctified version of the same. After all, we may introduce fresh words, but as Axl Rose once sang, “the streets don’t change but maybe the names.” No, if there’s a hope for those stuck in the seculosity of work, I dare say it’s the kind our favorite German monk nailed way back in the days when performance reviews still took place in a confessional:

It is impossible to gain peace of conscience by the methods and means of the world. Experience proves this. Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace.

Amen to that. And amen to this:


6 responses to “Workaholics in the Hands of a Firing God”

  1. DLE says:

    In my father’s era, people did indeed work hard, but they could let down their hair at the end of the day and on weekends because the company was loyal to the employee and the employee to the employer. You had to seriously screw up to lose a job, and most people stayed with a company for decades.

    Nowadays, all that is gone, and the idea persists that you could be let go because some guy you never met in a corner office in a distant city had a bad day at the track, and he canned your entire department just because. For the mild-mannered guy over 45, this becomes a point of nonstop existential dread.

    Again, does the Church have any answers?

    And what do you do when everyone is cranked to mind-boggling productivity levels that no matter how crazy hard you work, five people outperform you, and the company is only keeping five, because that’s how they hire longterm now. Dog eat dog, the loser gets a pink slip.

    Now make that the increasing norm everywhere.

    How does anyone live anymore? Really?

  2. Johnson A says:

    “In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.”

    Interesting parallel with the expansion of the word “vocation” (etymologically, ‘calling’) to describe what used to be thought of as layman’s work. I wonder whether the Christian vocation advocacy is unconsciously taking its cues (semantically and otherwise) from the ‘seculosity’ of work.

  3. Dale Klitzke says:

    David, great post! We are excited about your writing, can’t wait for your new book and VERY excited about seeing you at Holy Spirit on April 7th!! Keep things rolling—you are doing a great job!

    • David Zahl says:

      Dale, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Carrie’s great but YOU may be my all time favorite person. But seriously, thank you for your encouragement!!

  4. Sarah says:

    Yes. hanks for synthesizing these articles. I feel so often that work is one of those microcosms/systems that shows you just how weird and terrible people can be and all the many little ways they are grasping all the time to not be that way. All of it just reminds me of how different our world is from what I suppose heaven must be like.

  5. […] After years of writing about workism (aka “the religion of work” aka “the Protestant work ethic”), we are today seeing a strange amount of not-work […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.