Workism: Have you had enough?

By Mike Cook for the BBJ

Have you ever heard the term, “workism?” Me neither until I recently read an article entitled ‘Workism is Making Americans Miserable.’ The author is a 33-year-old staff writer for The Atlantic named Derek Thompson. Like my youngest son Jackson, Thompson is a millennial and full of the same spirit of “Hey, I have something to say and you need to listen” as I am used to with my son. Here is a link to a You Tube piece of Thompson from 2015, it’s pretty short and it will give you some idea of the spirit this young man brings to his work.

So back to “workism.” I picked up on the term shortly after posting my last piece here in the BBJ, ‘We need a major redesign of Our Workforce’ in which I was attempting to make a case for a redesign of our lives based on the reality of an extended life time. Thompson defines “Workism” as “…the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

So, here we are faced with two facts that would seem to add up to something not necessarily attractive for many of our younger people. On one hand we are living longer, by nearly 20 years since the beginning of the 20th century. Currently average life expectancy in the US is between 76 and 79 depending on your sex. On the other hand, we, Americans, work more hours than any other nation that has a similar level of economic development. So, what’s going on, we get to live longer and so we choose to spend more of our lives at work? What’s more, those among us who make the most money work the longest hours? And here’s the truth, backed by plenty of research…Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed, tired and bitter.

Sadly, there are those who will read these words and pitch a fit, mainly men who are 50+ years old, high income earners who live with the fear that if we actually headed in the direction of less time at work our advantages as a national economy would soon be lost. We are so far from that reality that it is hardly worth discussing.

In actuality, there was a time, in 1930 when famed economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an article predicting the economic future for the next generation’s grandchildren in which he saw the eventuality of a fifteen-hour workweek and a five-day weekend. Looking at the then advancements in productivity, with more to come it was foreseeable that the problem for the average citizen in the future would be the challenge of how to occupy their leisure. As recently as the late 1950’s experts were prophesying a reality for Americans that demanded the development of hobbies or increased amounts of time spent with our families.

So, what happened, were these experts wrong? Wrong is probably not the most useful way to think about what followed that led to an America that continues to work as though work was our life purpose and in working longer, perhaps harder we will ultimately find meaning to our lives. What the experts were prophesying was one possible future, not the one that came to pass. Could we have gone towards a more leisurely future? Yes and no. Yes, like a fork in the road we did not take and no because those economic experts did not fully recognize that central to the American nature is the notion that working is sacred. Looking from the perspective of an economist, work is a means to an end, for many Americans it has become the end in itself.

Please don’t interpret anything I am saying here as an argument against the value of hard work. Nothing could be farther from my intention. My purpose is to point to our addiction to work as a substitute for other forms of value. Step back for a minute and ask how you determine the value of your life. Think back to the last social setting you were in where you were meeting people for the first time. Most likely, among the first questions you asked or were asked was some version of “what do you do?” There is a kind or pressure imposed in asking or responding to that question that implies the need to justify oneself or feel justified with a worthy response.

Personally, I’d much rather talk about the problem of student debt or what we can do to encourage the creation of a meaningful parental leave program or how about longer vacation allowances since a more rested workforce is more productive. These are things we can discuss together while asking what you do still leaves me disengaged from you.

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