Golden handcuffs and the new religion of work

 
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In Japanese martial arts, the term “kuzushi” refers to unbalancing an opponent. This noun comes from the verb “kuzusu”, which has a much heavier semantic load than the corresponding noun. “Kuzusu” means “to level”, “to pull down”, “to destroy”, or “to demolish”. Neither of these concepts describes the first thing that comes to mind when we think of “unbalancing”, but Japanese wisdom has pointed to the connection between the two: you just have to unbalance your opponent, in order to destroy them. Imbalance alone is not a tragedy, so long as recovery is still possible. However, in a fighting situation, the inability to regain your balance often translates into defeat.

In everyday life, the circumstances that cause us imbalance are many. It is the averse and inevitable contexts that can limit us, no questions asked. And then there are the self-sabotaging decisions, avoidable, but which can fatally unbalance us. Smoking is one such decision, as is the lack of physical activity (which is said to have the same health impact as tobacco use).

Lack of adequate sleep is also a form of imbalance, which we try to compensate for by drinking rivers of coffee. Chaotic eating is also a choice that has many meanings for different people, even though the body has experienced it physiologically in the same way for millennia.

With all these unfavourable decisions (and others) we built ourselves the most feared adversary. And most of us are aware of its existence and the fact that we are its creators. However, we are unaware of the existence of its twin brother, who is harming our mental health. Maybe that’s why the American press has created so much fuss over the article on “workism” that Derek Thompson published in The Atlantic.

Thompson has a bold thesis, but he argues it so well that several international television stations have invited him to their sets to explain in more detail what he meant when he wrote that, “…for the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.”

A lying god

The prediction made in the early 20th century by economist John Maynard Keynes, that technology would make our work so much easier and that we would only need to work 15 hours a week, was not fulfilled, although technology made unimaginable advances in the 1930s, writes Thompson. Keynes imagined that once they automated their work, people would have a five-day weekend, and that “for the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem”: “how to occupy the leisure time.”

Twenty-seven years later, writer Erik Barnouw responded to Keynes’s challenge when he wrote in The New York Times that as our work becomes easier, our identity will be defined by hobbies and family life. “The increasingly automatic nature of many jobs, coupled with the shortening workweek [will lead] an increasing number of workers to look not to work but to leisure for satisfaction, meaning, expression,” Barnouw wrote.

Fast-forwarding decades and reaching 2019, Thompson realised that, although both thinkers partially managed to identify valid trends—automation is a broader reality than the public opinion perceives especially in recent years, and most Americans (if not other nations as well) today work on average 200 hours less per year than in 1930—people failed to find anything better than work from which to extract their life’s purpose.

On the contrary, Thompson writes, “…rich, college-educated people—especially men—work more than they did many decades ago. They are reared from their teenage years to make their passion their career and, if they don’t have a calling, told not to yield until they find one.”

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However, this philosophy has a wrong foundation, believes Thompson. We cannot assume that jobs were created to give us a purpose in life when they exist to fuel a capitalist economy. Not acknowledging this fact and striving to build your passion from the ingredients of capitalism “is a recipe for severe disappointment,” warns the writer. Put more simply, working long hours in the name of economic production is not a pathway to a revelation about individual aspirations or personal identity—it’s a recipe for burnout

This trait seems exacerbated in the US, where the American conception is that that hard work pays off. In Germany and the Netherlands, countries with an affluence and productivity comparable to the United States, the annual level of work per employee fell by about 40% between 1950 and 2012, while in the US the decrease was only 10 per cent. The first to fall into the trap of disillusionment, it seems, are those who believe in the American dream, be they reach men or working class.

In fact, many companies work to provide high-performing employees with material and financial incentives to stick with a company for an extended period—what is commonly referred to as golden handcuff agreements. A six-figure salary, a company car or employee stock options are often provided to key employees to entice them to continue working in their current job and to keep their focus on things like the quarterly bonuses or the long term health of the company rather than anything else.

Those whom we would expect to work less because they can afford to spend their time as they wish, are the ones who choose to devote the most time to work. This finding on the lifestyle of rich Americans is in stark contrast to the lifestyle of the rich in pre-industrial Europe. Why do the rich give up the easy life for work?

“Maybe the logic here isn’t economic at all,” writes Thompson. “It’s emotional—even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.”

My desk, my altar

If for the poor or working classes and even for the middle class, work remains mainly a necessity, for the rich and educated elite, work is not a material necessity, but a spiritual one, because they decided to anchor their identity in it. It cannot be a coincidence that this spiritual transformation of the American elite is taking place simultaneously with the decline of traditional religion. Along with this, there has been an explosion of new forms of atheism: the idolatry of beauty, of political identities, of children—the common denominator of all of them being the fact that “everybody worships something.”

In an interview with CBS, Thompson argued that we’re looking for new places to find meaning in life, at a time when religiosity is declining. He believes that even if churches are losing members at an astonishing rate, something still has to stand on that altar. We have to worship something; if not God, what could it be? Thompson continued his idea, saying that in the past, when we said “work” we meant “the office”. Now, we might as well say “church”. Everything we have hoped for religion to offer us, throughout history, whether it is community, transcendence, meaning, or self-actualization, we expect today from our daily work.

“Workism”, as Thompson called this new religion of work worship, is a philosophy that is passed on from the richest and most educated to the less affluent and educated classes. And the gospel of this new religion is that work is our main source of identity. Our activity at work has become defining for us and we consider blessed those to whom work offers not only the resources to pay their bills but also meaningful resources and even a purpose in life. It fulfils them.

The problem with this philosophy is one that economists at the turn of the last century were not able to anticipate: they “did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production.”

For a filling bread

Thompson didn’t finish the story, though. He even diluted his message in an interview in which he confessed he would prefer people to idolise their families and their community, not the workplace. However, he also wrote in another article that the reason people choose to worship a spiritual entity such as God is that anything else people could devote themselves to will eat them alive. This excludes the possibility of effectively substituting idolising work with idolising the family. Focusing our lives on something that was not created with the ability to encourage us in our faith will unbalance us to the point of collapse.

This is what Presbyterian Pastor Timothy Keller wanted to highlight in a remarkable speech on the relationship between Christian identity and work, which he gave in 2013 at a confessional meeting in Orlando. He said that faith succeeds in inspiring balance by helping us avoid having a distorted identity but rather having a deep and stable sense of our value because its foundation is not our behaviour, but God’s love for us. It is not what we do that dictates our worth, but the love of God, who has not withheld any favours He could do us, offering even His Son, the pastor emphasised.

Faith gives us a moral compass in the absence of which work could become a spiritually corrupting factor. Christianity is counter-cultural in this regard because it places God’s love for people as an identity landmark. This is the measure of human worth. Mankind has value because it is desired and loved by the Creator. A job will only fulfil us if we can integrate it in a broader sense, within a “story” that contains the meaning and direction of our work, Keller believes. The story of a Christian’s life is the story of rebuilding the image of God in people.

An echo of the words that Jesus Christ uttered two millennia ago, and were recorded by Matthew the apostle, reverberates with acute relevance to the generation stricken by the burnout syndrome: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Christ did not refer only to those who could physically follow Him in those moments and become His spiritual disciples. He also referred to the believers who would be born over the following centuries and who, with the way they would choose to live, through the priorities they would set, would show that the spiritual presence of Christ in their lives is a reality; that they follow in His footsteps, although they are no longer distinguishable on earth, but only in the souls of those who resemble Him.

On another occasion, as told by John the evangelist, Christ told the disciples that He was “the bread of life” and made this promise: “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” His statement, which scandalised people at the time, is so familiar to believers today that we can hardly see how it could still be valid today.

Tim Tebow, a former American football player who was one of the most influential American athletes on Forbes’ 2013 list, provided a vivid example of what it means to turn to God as the main source of identity. Accustomed to criticism from the press, he serenely addressed a crowd of journalists: “I’m grateful that doesn’t define me. There is one thing that defines me and that’s what God says about me.”

If we let our work speak instead of God, we run the risk of throwing ourselves into an existential vacuum where meaning is nowhere to be found, especially when a computer can do a month’s work in ten minutes.