Tiny tomes, big ideas
‘Workism’ the new religion in search for meaning in life
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There exists a taken-for-grantedness with work.
For most of us, we get up on prescribed days of the week and march off to a second home, where we engage in tasks and thinking in exchange for money. Some of us who are lucky enough, including this reviewer, are even excited each morning to work. Some see work as a calling — a place where we find meaning, community and purpose.
But for Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, our obsession with meaning-making through work is not only a recent phenomenon, but also one that could very well be problematic. In On Work: Money, Meaning, Identity, a short collection of long-form essays and part of Atlantic Editions, Thompson makes the case for what he labels “workism:” a new religion based on the idea that people “ask their jobs to provide community, transcendence, meaning, self-actualization, existential therapy — all the things we have historically sought from organized religion.”
Our species is highly creative and capable of great feats. But in the 21st-century North America, this has translated into longer hours worked with many “feeling overextended, exhausted, and empty.” These are the lessons, however, that we have taught ourselves in our society — that hard work and devotion to it are the bedrocks for fulfilment. Crawling to your home on a Friday night at the end of the week when you haven’t spent time with your family, your partners, or neighbours is the norm.
We know we have worked hard when we pass out watching the National with half a beer on our laps.
When we see colleagues leaving at quitting time, we give them a look of judgment. This addiction to work, according to Thompson, is “making us a little bit crazy,” and also presents significant problems with the eventual decrease in productivity, thanks in part to AI, automation and human ingenuity.
What happens when we don’t have to work five days a week? What happens when the work carpet is pulled from under our feet? As Thompson asks, “What might happen if work goes away?”
Through six essays spanning the last eight years, Thompson investigates the deep and often sick relationship we can have with work, the effects of the pandemic on work, the relationship between time and capitalism and the fact that many of us simply complain that we don’t have enough time — that is, time for leisure, family and the things that hold real value.
Thompson makes the argument that we “work so hard because their (American) culture has conditioned them to feel guilty when they are not productive.”
This is certainly a reflection that holds true for this reviewer. Why is it on holidays that we become miserable? Surely we are sick. Thompson suggests that a world with less work, if we do not act quickly, will result in further feelings of despair and depression. We need to begin to imagine a society in the West where leisure is prioritized, where a basic income might allow for all sorts of fulfilling work and where “work is not life’s product, but its currency,” allowing us to enjoy more time with family and friends.
But as Thompson posits, the “Gospel of Work perpetually confronts us and shackles us to our insecurities and a shifty bill of goods propagated by perverse notions of the American dream, wildly destructive capital-driven lies, and fantasies derived from the almighty market.” For Thompson, “The problem with the 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.”
On Work is a brief wake up call to those of us who worship at the altar of work. Thompson provides a reflective provocation for those of us who put work before our kids, before our partners, before the things that really matter.
Thompson’s timely essays are also catalysts for a paradigm shake-up. Our society is sick. We should have more free time, but with each innovation, we seem to work even harder. While it is important that we have jobs that contribute to a just and sustainable society, perhaps now is the time to pump the brakes on our unfettered addiction to it — for the sake of balance, time and connection.
These surely cannot be taken for granted.
Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.
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