Have Americans Made Work Their New Religion?

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A prayer in a frame hangs on the wall as Patricia Jackson sifts through bank documents in her home Saturday, June 16, 2012, in Marietta, Ga. (David Goldman/AP)
A prayer in a frame hangs on the wall as Patricia Jackson sifts through bank documents in her home Saturday, June 16, 2012, in Marietta, Ga. (David Goldman/AP)

Find our buildout from this hour, featuring a partial transcription, here.

With Anthony Brooks

Do you seek meaning in your day job? We ask if America’s cult of finding fulfillment at work leaves people spiritually empty.

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Derek Thompson, staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets and the media. (@DKThomp)

Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Host of the "WorkLife" podcast. Author of "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy," "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World" and "Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success." (@AdamMGrant)

Emily Esfahani Smith, writer, journalist. Author of "The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness." (@EmEsfahaniSmith)

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: "Workism Is Making Americans Miserable" — "In his 1930 essay 'Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,' the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek in the 21st century, creating the equivalent of a five-day weekend. 'For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,' Keynes wrote, 'how to occupy the leisure.'

"This became a popular view. In a 1957 article in The New York Times, the writer Erik Barnouw predicted that, as work became easier, our identity would be defined by our hobbies, or our family life. 'The increasingly automatic nature of many jobs, coupled with the shortening work week [leads] an increasing number of workers to look not to work but to leisure for satisfaction, meaning, expression,' he wrote.

"These post-work predictions weren’t entirely wrong. By some counts, Americans work much less than they used to. The average work year has shrunk by more than 200 hours. But those figures don’t tell the whole story. 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.

"The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism."

New York Times: "Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?" — "Never once at the start of my workweek — not in my morning coffee shop line; not in my crowded subway commute; not as I begin my bottomless inbox slog — have I paused, looked to the heavens and whispered: #ThankGodIt’sMonday.

"Apparently, that makes me a traitor to my generation. I learned this during a series of recent visits to WeWork locations in New York, where the throw pillows implore busy tenants to 'Do what you love.' Neon signs demand they 'Hustle harder,' and murals spread the gospel of T.G.I.M. Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. 'Don’t stop when you’re tired,' someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. 'Stop when you are done.' Kool-Aid drinking metaphors are rarely this literal.

"Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape. 'Rise and Grind' is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a 'Shark Tank' shark. New media upstarts like the Hustle, which produces a popular business newsletter and conference series, and One37pm, a content company created by the patron saint of hustling, Gary Vaynerchuk, glorify ambition not as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle."

Psychology Today: "3 Reasons Why America Is Starting to Lose God" — "God may not be dead, but God does appear to be starting to fade, at least in the United States. And, it’s not just religiousness; for the first time, there is evidence that spirituality also may be starting to decline.

"The latest report was released this week by Jean Twenge and colleagues. These scholars scrutinized data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative sampling of over 58,000 American adults that can be used to examine social trends going back to 1974.

"Consistent with other recent analyses, results showed that, by 2014, American adults were less likely to be religiously affiliated and to believe in God than they were previously. This study also breaks new ground in showing that Americans were less likely to attend religious services, pray, and report being spiritual. Millennials (aged 18-29) were especially likely to display these trends, with one out of every five reporting that they are 'not spiritual at all.' The only exception to recent trends was an increased belief in the afterlife."

The Atlantic: "Too Many Elite American Men Are Obsessed With Work and Wealth" — "Women earn a fraction of men’s average hourly wages in the United States, somewhere between 79 percent and 92 percent, depending on how one adjusts the data. Among the economy’s highest-paying jobs, this fissure looks more like a canyon. Four in five senior vice presidents and chief executive officers are men, and the women who do go into the highest-paying jobs have smaller paychecks. Female physicians and surgeons make 29 percent less than their male counterparts.

"The wage gap at the top is the sum of many cultural forces, including discrimination at work and an expectation that new moms stay home while high-earning dads get back to work. But it is also the result of a subtler cultural force—a values gap. Among equally smart men and women, men, on average, gravitate toward making as much money as possible and working long hours to do it. Women, on average, do not."

Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on February 26, 2019.



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