This rebroadcast originally aired on September 20, 2022.
Sociologist Carolyn Chen studied Silicon Valley and discovered that tech firm culture had become a kind of religion.
"The workplace was the last meaningful institution standing," she says. "It was an institution that offered the best means for meaning, identity, belonging and purpose."
In return for their workers’ devotion, companies take care of their every need.
"It's very easy to drink the Kool-Aid, as it were," Jessica Dai says. "It's very easy to be sucked into, Oh, just do all of the things that have been planned out for you."
Today, On Point: What happens when work is like a religion, and the workplace the only community?
"The flip side of that is public brokenness, where you have people withdrawing from the political system, disengagement from the public. That is a public problem," Chen adds.
Carolyn Chen, sociologist and a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Author of Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley. (@WorkPrayCode)
Lauren Padron, student at Florida International University. She works as a mechanical engineer doing environmental work.
Kevin Chu, software engineer who has worked at tech startups and a hedge fund.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: I want to bring Lauren Padron into the conversation. She is a mechanical engineer and also a student at Florida International University. And she joins us from Miami. Lauren, welcome to On Point.
LAUREN PADRON: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, you had called us as well and left a really fascinating message about your view of finding connection and transcendence in work. And I wanted to bring you on live in the conversation, specifically because you're also an engineer.
And a lot of the folks we're talking about on the other coast in Silicon Valley are engineers as well. So as a mechanical engineer, Lauren, how do you find purpose or meaning in your work?
PADRON: Hi. Yes. So my work includes field work out in the Everglades. I do active dives for surveying, essentially, our resources. I also do technical work in terms of understanding our wastewater and how we are disposing this water and how it's going back to the fish, and back to the anglers that work out there and back to the community.
So I also work in a nanoplastics lab. I just started that project. And I hope to give back to my community by creating more devices that are able to solve these issues. And I guess I'm a little bit of an outlier because I was raised atheist.
I am currently agnostic. And I find spirituality in the world around me, and understanding the world and feeling like I'm alive and I'm able to comprehend as little as I can about the environment around me. I think that in and of itself leaves me awestruck and that awe is really my sense of spirituality. Because I feel it in very specific moments, in a very intense way.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And so did that the emergence of that awe come because of the work that you're doing? Because I hear, I mean, like diving in the Everglades and trying to understand, you know, the beautiful mysteries and interconnections of an ecosystem like that is awe inspiring.
I mean, so do you find your work as central to that spiritual experience you're talking about?
PADRON: I think it definitely brings me back down again. It places my feet on the ground. Because most of these things I have researched kind of in a bubble. So I studied philosophy previously and I studied philosophy of science. And I learned a lot of physics through reading Einstein or other theories. And then I studied physics. But seeing it itself, seeing it in nature, having a daily experience where you just happen to see something really simple, like a bucket on a boat, where the water at the very top of the bucket just makes a pattern because of how it is hitting the boat.
You know, like simple concepts of physics that just show up in daily life, like how you look at water. And it kind of makes these really intricate shapes and patterns and it's like, wow, that's math, that's mathematics, that's chaos theory. And for some reason that just makes me awestruck. And I know I don't understand it all, but that's part of the magic.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Lauren, you are clearly an inspiring seeker, for sure. I'm reverberating with you right now here. But but what's interesting to me is you're describing that wonder in the actual work that you're doing, you know, just everything from seeing the ripples of water on the surface of a bucket in your boat, to doing those dives or doing work that could benefit the community.
As you've been hearing, Professor Chen has been talking about companies becoming a kind of church. I don't know if you're working for a specific company or group right now, at the same time that you're doing your your studies. But do you feel like there's some sort of belief that you have in the company that you're working for?
PADRON: I definitely have to agree with that. There are groups that come together to collaborate as part of my job. Different organizations come together to achieve a general goal of understanding these ecosystems further. Of explaining it to the public, but also helping engineering projects be more wholesome in that sense. And I think there's definitely a specific purpose that scientists have, which is you're trying to better the world in some sense. You're trying to make discoveries, but hopefully the discoveries will be obtained and will be useful to society.
Excerpted from WORK PRAY CODE: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley © 2022 by Carolyn Chen. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.
New York Times: "When Your Job Fills In for Your Faith, That’s a Problem" — "Plenty of writers have argued in recent years that work has become a false idol, with the office, not church, the place where many Americans now seek out meaning and purpose."
This program aired on September 20, 2022.