What is workism?

July 3rd, 2019

A new word — a new challenge

The English language is ever evolving, and you can now add a new word to your lexicon: workism. In a February 2019 article for The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson coined this term to describe a rising trend in our culture. In Thompson’s analysis, the primary purpose of work has shifted from a focus on material production, as it had been in the early 20th century, and has become a means of identity production. According to Thompson, economists 100 years ago failed to predict work transforming “into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence and community.”

We’re all familiar with the idea of a workaholic, someone who works compulsively or is even addicted to work. Thompson uses this idea as a building block for his concept, defining 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; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Though Thompson never directly mentions specific faith practices, the article frames workism as a type of religion in competition with traditional religious belief systems. The author claims that everyone worships something, whether it’s beauty, politics or children, and goes on to warn that “workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

American productivity

Set in a fictional area of England in the time period from 1912 to 1926, the popular television series Downton Abbey showcased the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants. As wealthy landowners, the Crawleys always had plenty of free time for walking in the garden, gathering in the parlor for conversation, hosting parties or going on vacations. While the Crawley family itself is fictional, the show does depict a realistic period in history when the wealthy worked little, especially when compared to those in lower classes. Rich Americans living in the same era also had an abundance of leisure time to entertain and be entertained. For years, that was the American dream: work less, play more.

Yet the trend in our modern world defies this dream, according to Thompson. Americans now work more hours than citizens of other countries with similar productivity, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Americans also take shorter vacations and enjoy fewer retirement benefits. In 1980, the highest-earning men worked less than middle- and low-income men. By 2005, that trend had shifted dramatically, with the richest 10 percent of married men having the longest average workweek. “Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics,” writes Thompson, “toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.”

Why are we working more, not less? In some cases, it’s because of the expectations and demands of employers. Yet according to recent research, for many men and women, long hours are a choice. Thompson argues that one reason many make this choice is that work has become so intimately connected to emotional and spiritual fulfillment. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans choose to spend their extra hours on work because “it’s where they feel most themselves,” writes Thompson. Work is their home; work is their play. My son, who works in the financial advising industry, confirmed this notion and told me that when he gets home from a long day at the office, he often chooses to read a work-related book because it gives him enjoyment. For him, it’s part of the creative process that helps him grow his business.

Christ alone?

It’s hard to read Scripture without coming to the conclusion that being a follower of Christ means leaving behind worldly desires. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” How do we balance complete devotion to Christ with the requirements of our work lives? This question is even trickier if work is our source of joy and fulfillment and plays an important part of our identity.

It’s common knowledge that many Americans would rather work, hike, catch up on household chores or do a number of other things besides worshipping with a faith community on the weekend. The competition is fierce. It forces us to ask, Why are so many people no longer thirsty for what the church offers? Whether conscious or not, everyone seeks meaning and connection. As those who share the good news of God’s grace and everlasting love, we must continue to offer Christ as a foundation, even in a world obsessed with workism and other sources of identity and meaning.

What Thompson misses in his comparison between workism and religion is that true religion is about surrendering our false identities to God and letting God transform us into new beings, into our true selves. While workism can provide a temporary substitute for divine connection, it will fail us at some point. Ask anyone who has been laid off, fired, retired, or become disabled. One’s identity can take a huge hit when the work is no longer there. Yet when we fall in love with Jesus, everything else aligns behind that love. Consider the words to the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” written by Isaac Watts in 1707:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

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