Since when did work become a religion, asks Ashley Whillans in this extract from her book Time Smart: How to Reclaim your Time and Live a Happier Life. The book was chosen by this Thursday’s Drink with the Idler guest, Laurie Santos
More than ever, our identities are tied to work. The best data show that people living in the United States increasingly look toward work—not friends, families, or hobbies—to find purpose.
The idea of work as a central source of meaning has been around for several decades, but the idea of what popular press articles call “workism” is a recent and intensifying phenomenon. As Derek Thompson, a staff writer at the Atlantic, described it, workism is the “newest religion competing for congregants.”
Work was once more generally considered a means to an end and not an end in itself. Work to live. Now many people live to work. In a 2017 survey, 95 per cent of young adults said that having an “enjoyable and meaningful career” was “extremely important” to them.
I marvel at how differently students approach college since I was in their position. It was common for my friends and me to make career decisions spontaneously, pursuing whatever we found interesting at the time. In my junior year, I was a theatre major, and I legitimately spent more time dressing up as Kermit the Frog than practising linear algebra. Now students come to me in anxious droves to ask about career trajectories and internship offers in hopes of choosing the absolute best, absolutely correct career path. One student met with me five times in one semester to try to figure out her future plans. I said to her, “You are 20 years old and almost a Harvard College graduate. There are no bad choices. I spent my junior year in college dressing up in a frog costume and doing yoga for course credit, and everything turned out fine!” Let’s just say she was not impressed.
Given the importance that we place on work, busyness at work now carries status. We wear it like a badge of honor. We want to be seen as the employee who works the longest hours (even when these hours aren’t productive). A colleague, Peter, told me that he used to stay at the office until 7pm—even when he wasn’t working—just so that the HR system would record his physical presence. Peter was paid a salary, so there was no direct incentive for him to work past 5pm. The Peters of the world make proud proclamations on social media about working nonstop and cancel social plans due to being crazy busy.
Financial insecurity also drives workism, and it’s on the rise. Since the early 1970s, income inequality has risen dramatically in the United States and around the world. As society becomes more unequal, people feel increasingly insecure about their financial future, regardless of their current stature. Those doing well worry about how far they could fall.
Those struggling to make ends meet fear falling farther behind. Most of us cope by working more and trying to make more money. By default, we deprioritize positive time for ourselves and our friends and family; it’s the easiest thing to sacrifice, because we’re not sure how to measure its value anyway. We voluntarily give up vacation time lest people perceive us as not working hard. We feel guilty about spending money on things that make us happy, such as dining out or vacations.
This fear is deep seated, sometimes resulting from exposure to inequality at a young age. When my colleagues and I asked people how unequal their neighborhood was where they grew up, and how important money is to them right now, we discovered that people exposed to greater income inequality as kids were more likely to say their self-esteem was influenced by how much money they made. It didn’t matter where they lived or how much money they had in the present; financial uncertainty growing up led to a higher chronic focus on money as adults.
With our self-identity so wrapped up in work and productivity, the social appearance of being busy makes us feel good about ourselves. Being busy makes us feel we are committed as well as essential. Our hard work (or the appearance of it) could help us earn more and keep us on the perfect career track we’ve planned for since college. In contrast, focusing our attention on something other than work could threaten our livelihood and status. We worry we won’t be valued, and, in part, we are right. Turns out employers are (mostly) rewarding the busyness cult. Research shows that employees who boast about working nonstop and being extremely busy are seen by others as better workers who have more money and prestige, even if they don’t. They’re even thought to be more physically attractive.
Even if it feels good in the moment for someone to see the email you sent on Saturday at 8:30pm, this behaviour contributes to an overall unhealthy and unhappy life. The workism time trap is contributing to your time poverty (and the time poverty of your colleagues).
Extracted from Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life by Ashley Whillans (Harvard Business Review Press).
Dr Laurie Santos hosts the popular podcast The Happiness Lab, and is a guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 28 January. Register here – free for Idler Academy and Magazine subscribers; otherwise just £5.