Derek Thompson in a February 2019 Atlantic article, writes, "Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose."
Work has not always been revered. It was once simply a means to an end, and the wealthier people became, the less they had to work, so the less they did work. Today, work has morphed into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Sadly, it falls short on all three counts. Americans, “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.
Why do we accept, and even brag about working so much? Nearly half of employed Americans (48%) consider themselves "workaholics," although many don't consider this a bad thing. We might be burnt out, exhausted, in failing relationships, and in poor health, but we justify all this in the name of working harder to earn more money. The problem with this logic is that working extremely hard does not guarantee huge monetary success. Sure, it ups the odds a bit, but we often overlook the fact that huge monetary success doesn't ensure happiness. Workers who do strike it big are often left flailing to articulate why they're not yet happy while many more workers strive for decades to attain greater financial success only to never quite achieve the level they're striving for. All too often, we gain moderate monetary success and years pass before we realize that living comfortably alone does not compensate for a lack of friends, losing touch with family, or letting go of hobbies that once brought us joy.
Further, the "American Dream" once meant acquiring wealth, owning a home, or gaining "financial freedom." But according to THIS recent survey of Americans, 85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live,” and 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” are both essential to achieving the American dream. Workaholics might still be clinging to wealth as an enormous impetus to acheive the American Dream, but it's more likely that most Americans are searching for meaning, freedom, and identity in our work. It is also quite likely that many Americans are "workaholics" not by choice but simply to survive. Three of the most common jobs in America are cashiers, retail salespeople, and food service workers. These workers often earn minimum wage, and the federal minimum wage is a mere $7.25 per hour (some states, like California where the minimum wage is $12.00/hour, are working to change this).
Even if most Americans recognize that a good family life is essential to their happiness, our shared language and attitudes don't really emphasize family life or even leisure. How often do you ask someone how they're doing and the response is something akin to, "I'm great! Crazy busy with work (insert a litany of work-related grievances." Very rarely do I ask someone how they are and the response is, "Life is pretty mellow," or "I've taken up oil painting," or, "I finally have time to spend with my family." We view open, empty time not as essential to our well-being but as a leisure to hide as if it were shameful. We are indelibly proud to be busy, even though we must, at least subconsciously, know that "being busy" doesn't neatly translate to success.
Economist Robert Frank wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “For many of today’s rich, there is no such thing as ‘leisure’ in the classic sense—work is their play. Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.” The elite have ascribed a higher purpose to their work, and everyone else, in an effort to mirror the elite in the hopes of also becoming rich, have too. Jobs are no longer simply jobs, they are our "callings," and we're inundated with messaging to underscore this: "Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life," et cetera, et cetera.
Working hard is an amazing character trait. Working constantly is not. Long hours don't make anyone more productive, and they certainly don't make anyone more creative. They simply make us stressed, tired, frazzled, and bitter. According to Gallup, 53% of Americans are "not engaged" in their work, while 13% are "actively disengaged." And according to THIS Harvard study, (although I'm not sure why we needed a study to prove this), the happiest workers are those who have adequate time to focus on their relationships and hobbies.
At a recent work conference, work-life balance was *surprisingly* emphasized, "This company will take as much as you have to give, and then ask for more," a senior director told me. "It's up to you to make sure it doesn't take everything."
P.S. Check out the book Off Balance by Matthew Kelly for an interesting take on discarding the idea of work-life balance in favor of pursing satisfaction (and how).