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You Might Love Your Job. But Does Your Job Love You Back?

Meg Dowaliby, along with her colleagues behind, wears Bose noise-canceling headphones, a perk of her job, as she works at her computer at Geniuslink in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Meg Dowaliby, along with her colleagues behind, wears Bose noise-canceling headphones, a perk of her job, as she works at her computer at Geniuslink in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Work makes many of us miserable. That’s particularly true here in America, where we embrace working hard, being crazy busy, "leaning in."

We’re encouraged to find meaning in work — to believe that we are defined by our work. So much so, Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, that work has morphed "into a kind of religion — promising identity, transcendence, and community."

He calls this "workism." And he argues that this gospel of work can’t possibly deliver.

"We tell people to pursue their passions, to hustle for their hobbies, to seek deep meaning in their day jobs," Thompson told On Point's Anthony Brooks. "But then you look at the jobs that actually exist in the economy, and the jobs that exist were not invented to give us meaning. They were designed to sell things to people, to turn the gears of consumerism."

Have we made work our new religion? And is it leaving us spiritually empty?

Thompson, Adam Grant and Emily Esfahani Smith weighed in.

Interview Highlights

On the last 100 years in U.S. labor

Thompson: "First, working hours declined for most people. As countries get richer they almost always work fewer hours because, of course, what do you buy with more wealth? You tend to buy more leisure. But here's the second historical mystery that launched me into this question in this essay: Since the 1980s, only one group has dramatically increased its hours worked per week. It's not the poor. It's not the middle class. It's the rich. That's really the opposite of what we should have expected in the last 100 years. It's the rich who are working more than they used to be. And I wondered, why are these men and women defying economic logic? Maybe they're using their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes, which is more work, because work is the thing they have decided gives them meaning. They want to buy more work because work is who they are."

On how the U.S. stacks up against other similar nations

Thompson: "The U.S. has more hours of work per year on average and the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. I compared the U.S., in the research that I saw from the World Bank, to countries like Germany and the Netherlands and Greece and Italy. And the answer is that we work longer hours; we have shorter vacations; we orient public policy around the workplace; that we offer fewer retirement benefits, fewer unemployment benefits, fewer disability benefits, because we think it's valuable to keep as many people attached to the labor force working as much as possible. I do think that Americans have in the last few decades come to think of work as a kind of ersatz religion."

"Since the 1980s, only one group has dramatically increased its hours worked per week. It's not the poor. It's not the middle class. It's the rich."

Derek Thompson

On our new religion

Thompson: "We've collectively, as an elite society, freighted work with expectations of meaning that are largely unrealistic and ultimately may be a recipe for tremendous disillusionment and anxiety. As I thought more and more about this phenomenon, thought about what we've come to expect from work — community and meaning, transcendence, self-actualization — the irony that occurred to me and the central irony of this piece, maybe the thesis of this piece, is that college graduate elites of the U.S. are less likely than any previous generation in this country's history to affiliate with the traditional religion. But they have funneled religious thinking into work itself. Their desks have become their altars and I think that's a problem. When we worship work, we worship a god that doesn't care about us. We worship a god that has firing power. And though some of us may very well find jobs that have extraordinary meaning and offer us a gorgeous balance between work and life and meaning and self actualization, for the vast majority of people, those jobs are so rare. I'm worried they're not going to find it and I'm worried we are creating an expectation that is a recipe for mass disillusionment."

On whether it's work, or something else, that is really Americans' "false idol"

Smith: "I think that work is not necessarily the problem. People have always turned to work for a source of meaning. If you think about one of the earliest jobs, forms of work that there was, hunting, there were rituals around that. Primitive man, the cave paintings, 30,000 years old, were all about these rituals surrounding the hunt. So we've always looked to work for meaning. I think what the false idol is and what this neurosis is, that we're seeing, especially among the highly educated, is creating an idol of success, ambition and status-mongering. And so you have these people who are working and working and choosing to work. They don't have to work these hours. And I think it's because this part of our psyche that yearns for meaning has been co-opted — outside of religion, outside of our civic communities — with this ceaseless quest for success."

On challenging the inherent value of work

Grant: "I think the problem is that that work is seen as something noble in and of itself. It dates back to Martin Luther and the Protestant ethic, where work was your duty from God. But I think it's morphed into this thing where grit is seen as a virtue. And I don't think there's anything virtuous about grit. With all due respect to Marie Kondo, I'm not going to applaud you if you're really hardworking in organizing your closet. I think that grit is a virtue if the ends are virtuous. I think we're doing way too much celebrating of people who are hustlers and hard workers, when instead we should be asking, 'Well, what are you working toward? And does that purpose really matter?' "

"When we worship work, we worship a god that doesn't care about us."

Derek Thompson

On whether something like universal basic income (UBI) would alter Americans' relationships with work

Thompson: "I'm open to the possibility that UBI helps people and even that UBI might become necessary in a world where automation and AI and other technologies permanently erode the workforce such that there is a large swath of people who cannot be meaningfully connected to the economy.

"The most common occupations in the U.S., according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are cashiers, salespeople, food and beverage clerks and waiters. These are jobs that do not typically thought of as 'pursue your passion' jobs. But we shouldn't lose respect for ordinary work. We shouldn't practice soft contempt for ordinary work. Those jobs should have a certain dignity, even if those people who are working in them wish to leave them. In fact, our dignity for the workers should in some way be disconnected from the thing they happen to be doing at this time in their life. And to achieve that end, you do have to separate some public policies from the labor force and say some things are guaranteed to everybody by sheer virtue of them being a human being who is a citizen of this country, like say a certain amount of money every month. Like say universal healthcare, like say universal child care, if you have a young kid. These sort of policies, I think, would reflect a dignity for humans that is not impossibly intertwined with the labor force."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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