Before The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson coined the term for a previously unnamed religion last month, we’d all seen signs of it—the overemphasis on “calling” and “passion,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s tweet that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” the Gen Z employees whose biggest fear about starting work is not finding a job that matches their personality.
Thompson called it workism, or the belief that work is “not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” It is “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.”
Under this mindset, work demands our utmost for its highest. We might imagine the preachers of the gospel of workism proclaiming, “It’s not about rules, it’s about a relationship.”
Under this mindset, work demands our utmost for its highest.
On the one hand, this is not a new phenomenon. Work has been a source of idolatry ever since Genesis 11, when humanity sought to build a tower to the heavens to make a name for themselves.
But in other ways, the situation seems to have changed. Work has become more than a job that provides material needs or a career that offers stability and meaning. For many, it now functions in place of spirituality.
Immanent Frame of the College-Educated
Thompson notes that workism is not generally the religion of the working poor. Nor does it spring hope eternal for the middle class. Rather, its primary worshipers are among the college-educated elite.
By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. . . . The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.
What has caused this situation? Thompson rightly sees a spiritual cause, though we may disagree on the details. Perhaps, as he notes, people fill their craving for belonging through work, in the way another generation would have found belonging through church.
The immanent frame turns windows into mirrors.
Or perhaps, as philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested, the emergence of the immanent frame is to blame. When you have a closed system, with no God who transcends all reality, you have to seek transcendence within the system. Some will find transcendence in love, or music, or gazing at the stars. Others will find it through work.
But the problem is that the immanent frame turns windows into mirrors. Work, love, music, and gazing at the stars are all magnificent windows, designed for us to look through to see the Creator of all good things. But when we eliminate the possibility of a transcendent being, the things themselves become opaque. They don’t lift our gaze to God; instead, they merely reflect back our own likeness.
Troublesome as it is, Thompson’s central thesis is sound. We are worshiping creatures. And for many, work is the object of devotion, community, hope, and transcendence.
This, of course, is disastrous. As Thompson observes, when a culture “funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs, (it) is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”
Work, created by God as a good thing, cannot bear the load of deity. “Our desks were never meant to be our altars,” Thompson says.
His suggested solution is to make work less central through public policies like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance. He also suggests we remember one of the goals of working—it purchases us free time, which is vital for our happiness and health.
If only the solution were as simple as a few twists of the public policy knob and a public service announcement! Thompson has made the case that the problem is spiritual. But he fails to suggest that a spiritual problem requires a spiritual answer.
This is where we can derive some help from C. S. Lewis. He saw how we tend to turn things such as dogs, alcohol, the opposite sex, and work into ultimate things—how we look to them for hope and community and transcendence. Like Thompson, Lewis realizes this is a spiritual problem. Yet unlike Thompson, he proposes a spiritual solution.
In an essay titled “First and Second Things,” Lewis explains:
The woman who makes a dog the center of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.
The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.
It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . .
You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
And therein lies the great challenge. If we want to knock work off the altar, we must replace it with something else. We only get the joy of meaningful work if we don’t worship it. We need an altar with something—or someone—more worthy.
According to Jesus, to love God is our first priority, followed by a second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. And he insisted this won’t be possible unless we surrender our lives to him. He described this surrender in different ways: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:30). “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
If we are connected to Christ’s life—through no merit or work of our own—then we will experience our life as it was intended to be. His life brings abundant life to all types of things—including everyday work.
When work becomes a window for the worship of God and an avenue to love our neighbor, it reclaims its proper, dignified place. But until first things are put first, work will remain on the altar, and the religion of workism will remain an elite—and exhausting—alternative to true faith.