On Workism

Derek Thompson’s Atlantic essay “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable” deserves widespread discussion around dinner tables; and in churches; synagogues; and heaven for bid, workplaces.

It’s hard to excerpt from because the whole thing deserves a close reading. In particular, the conclusion is strong:

“Workism offers a perilous trade-off. On the one hand, Americans’ high regard for hard work may be responsible for its special place in world history and its reputation as the global capital of start-up success. 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. A staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year.

One solution to this epidemic of disengagement would be to make work less awful. But maybe the better prescription is to make work less central.

This can start with public policy. There is new enthusiasm for universal policies—like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance—which would make long working hours less necessary for all Americans. These changes alone might not be enough to reduce Americans’ devotion to work for work’s sake, since it’s the rich who are most devoted. But they would spare the vast majority of the public from the pathological workaholism that grips today’s elites, and perhaps create a bottom-up movement to displace work as the centerpiece of the secular American identity.”

Insightful and important, but incomplete. Thompson misses the sociological nature of workism. He implies well compensated Americans are consciously choosing to work to the point of exhaustion, but the dynamic is far more complex. More of a sociological sensibility is needed to understand two things: 1) the subtle and nuanced way status anxiety contributes to conspicuous consumption, and 2) how a few workaholics can create workplace cultures that lead others to haphazardly conform until a critical mass of pathological workaholism takes over.

Simply put, in some workplaces, you are not truly free to choose whether to make work the centerpiece of your identity or not. Your co-workers make the decision for you.

 

 

What We Get Wrong About Work and Retirement

A fair number of my friends are in their late 50’s to mid-60’s meaning they’re heading towards the exits at work. Some who’ve recently retired are struggling to adapt to life without work routines. They werent enamored with their work all the time, but it provided a predictable structure for their lives.

Meanwhile, we continually read about how wonderfull everyone’s “Third Act” is, whether traveling the world, volunteering, consulting, or starting new careers which shouldn’t count as retiring at all. Retiring is like investing, we only talk about the most positive examples, thus painting a misleading picture. The truth of the post-work matter is, many people don’t know what to do when they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, you’re right, this is a nice “first world” problem to have. Too many people can never afford to retire, but solving that problem is well beyond the reach of my pea-brain, so here I focus on those fortunate enough to soon pull the work plug.

Maybe the best way to think about the challenge is to consider the experience of a friend of mine in his late 40’s because I think his experience is fairly typical.

“Tom” works 60 hours a week, 49-50 weeks a year. In the limited non-work time he has, he watches reality t.v. and his kids play sports. Despite being friendly, he has few friends because he spends almost all of his time working. He assauges his guilt for working so much by spending all of his non-work time with his family. Consequently, he doesn’t have any independent interests or hobbies. In a few years his kids will be gone and he’ll wonder what to do with that little bit of non-work time. I hope I’m wrong, but I predict that In fifteen years, when he stops working, he’ll be completely lost.

Our typical way of thinking about work and retirement, work too much for several decades and then throw a switch and completely stop working, is seriously flawed. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to succeed at reshaping their personal identity overnight.

My working friends who make time for their friends right now and love things like cycling, gardening, and traveling, will fair better than my friend who has decided to sacrifice personal interests on the alter of exceedingly long work weeks.

Of course, the closely related challenge is creating a lifestyle that doesn’t require decades of overwork. If Tom’s children decide to live more simply, like many Millenials seem to be, maybe they’ll strike a better work-life balance. One other important “dot” to connect is one’s wages. Obviously, the more specialized and sought after one’s skills are, they better they are compensated, meaning the fewer hours they HAVE to work.

Instead of throwing a retirement switch, more Baby Boomers are gently turning a dimmer switch, choosing to work half time for example. Gradually transitioning from the world of work to the world of non-obligatory work makes real sense. If you can afford it.