Writing for The Atlantic in 2019, Derek Thompson described the accelerating influence of "Workism,"or "the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose."
In the piece, Thompson traced two highly interrelated patterns in American culture: the drastic decline of religious participation, and the accelerating rise of those who describe themselves exclusively in terms of their career. Thompson argued that the workplace has supplanted religion and other institutions as a source of identity and belonging. Accordingly, the workplace has become America's new temple.
But I think Thompson's analysis is only part of the story. It's not just that the workplace has become a de facto temple. It's that our way of working - the busyness, the frenetic pace of it all - has become a cultural idol. Busyness, it seems, has entrenched itself as the only core value that we all share in common.
This explains why when asked to describe the state of our work life, we often share that we are "busy," with a smug sense of self-satisfaction, as if the busy are the blessed among us.
The symptoms of "Workism" are visible everyday, but are particularly striking during the summer months. We're working longer hours, taking fewer vacations, and leaving more paid time off on the able. According to the 2017 State of American Vacation report, American workers took an average of 20.3 days of vacation every year from 1978 until 2000. The rate has dropped nearly every year since. This year, Americans will only take an average of 16 days off, essentially donating one week of paid time off back to their employers.
Perhaps the case of the vanishing vacation can be explained not as a product of individual companies but as a broader cultural trend. Despite the fact that firms are doling out more vacation days to attract and retain talent, and despite their supposed support for detachment from email, 79% of American workers still check their work email while on vacation. According to The Washington Post, 4% of Americans check email constantly while on vacation. Workism has wheels, and will be joining you for your summer road trip.
The chief problem with Workism is that it places the things we do, or more specifically, the tasks we complete, at the pinnacle of human identity. When we put so much weight into the pursuit of tasks, we have little capacity left to examine our beliefs (what we think), or more importantly, our values (how we think about what matters). The things we do overshadow the things we believe, while crushing completely the things that we value.
It is ironic, although unsurprising, that our culture has a remedy for workism and task-obsession: namely, better organization of our tasks.
#productivitytok is among the most followed topics on social media. Books on task management are fixtures on Amazon's best-seller lists. And a cohort of productivity experts ranging from academics (Cal Newport) to evangelical Christian pastors (John Mark Comer) stands ready with exercises and checklists to reduce your busyness and organize the things you do - provided you are willing to complete the tasks they prescribe.
This is not to say that the we do is unimportant, or that doing a lot of meaningful work is undesirable. Occupations are often central to our vocational identity, and for good reason. Provided we have the opportunity to continue these efforts, our life may seem well-lived, perhaps even meaningful.
But what happens when our tasks are suddenly taken away from us?
Since the start of 2023, over 150,000 US tech workers have been laid off, their jobs cuts announced by a boilerplate email sent in the middle of the night. These lay offs are just the beginning of the disruption about to impact the workforce.
By some estimates, 300 million jobs globally will be "lost or degraded" due to artificial intelligence. And these jobs aren't the blue collar factory positions long thought of as at risk to automation. These job losses will affect computer programmers, graphic designers, digital marketers, and countless other white-collar professions long thought to be immune from automation and digital disruption.
It's no surprise, then, that layoffs are doing measurable harm to the mental health of workers, particularly those affected by job cuts. Indeed, this moment has all the makings of a shared cultural crisis.
For how can someone have a stable, rooted identity in the work they do when that work is no longer available?
How can one's sense of self be defined through tasks, let alone jobs or careers, when AI displacement and mass layoffs have arrived in seemingly every industry?
What happens when one's sense of identity, rooted not in religion nor in institutions but in the busyness of the workplace, is interrupted by job loss?
It's unlikely that there is a solution to this looming crisis of identity. Disruptions to our tasks and work lives are here to stay. This is not a crisis that has an easy solution. All one can do is to develop a certain capacity for resilience. And in this moment, resilience requires a shift in perspective.
It's time to label Workism as a destructive force, to view busyness as a threat to rather than a source of our identity.
It's time to find mentors, teachers, friends, and yes, even institutions, who can push away our growing list of tasks (if only for a moment) and to help us discover our values. It's time to study the art of discernment, rather than the practices of productivity.
As Carolyn Chen points out in her new book "Work Pray Code,"the world of work has developed its own theologies. These new theologies suggest that alignment between work and vocation defines our "authentic selfhood." In this digital age, our sense of selfhood has been redefined as alignment between work and purpose. It's time to rediscover the beliefs and values that are fundamental to our spiritual identities.