Is work the new religion?

Have you ever found yourself paying for time to allow you work? Hiring cleaners, dog walkers and babysitters to spend more time in the office? Do you ‘workify’ all of your jobs around the house and find yourself trying optimise every task? Has your free time been taken over by a side hustle…or two, and do you feel guilty when sat in front of the TV without your phone or laptop to hand to just check in with colleagues or catch up on some emails? If some of the above rings true then you could (like me) be slipping into the realm of what the writer Derek Thompson has described as ‘workism’.

I’ve been thinking about work a lot lately. This is perhaps not all together unexpected as my year of maternity leave draws to a close. Yet my thoughts on work and my work-life balance were thrown into particular focus after listening to an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast discussing Thompson’s article on this topic.

In the podcast, Klein explores Thompson’s notion that work has become the centrepiece to our lives, society and identity. He looks at how work has begun to ‘colonise’ other areas of our lives and how we have internalised the idea that we should be working all of the time, or at least doing something productive that will in some way advance our working life.

This shift in the prominence of work in our lives, Thompson argues, is founded in our changing conception of work – from job, to career, to ‘calling’ – and with it a shift in our understanding of work from necessity, to status, to meaning. Work becomes connected to our self-perceived value in the world: it’s not just how you make money, it’s how you prove you have worth. The gospel that your ‘dream job’ is out there creates an obligation in all of us to seek it, resulting in a need for ‘constant hustling’ and a creeping sense that anything short of a vocation is a wasted life.

Thomson writes:

‘[C]ollege-educated people […] 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.’

Added to this focus on work is the pressure of needing to demonstrate to the world that we are still able to have fun and enjoy ourselves. The result, we end up ‘performing’ a work life balance: posting pictures of the perfect holiday, or the greatest night out on Instagram while also needing to show we are nailing it at our jobs.

This idea of work taking centre stage in our life and informing our sense of identity really resonated with me. My ears especially pricked up when the concept that we are now so work-focused that we are essentially ‘buying more time to work’ was discussed. Here is was suggested that we outsource other elements of our life – our housework, childcare etc. – to give us more time to work. When I go back to my job I will essentially be paying to work, with all of my salary going on childcare costs. I’ve always argued this decision on the basis of retaining a sense of my identity and independence, as well as acting as a foot in the door of my longer term place in the workforce. It has become clear that work is not just about income generation, it’s about something less tangible linked to who I am and how I see myself as contributing to society.

Also pertinent to me was the idea put forward by podcast guest Anne Helen Petersen that we are increasingly ‘workifying’ all activities in our life. This in turn leads to the idea that all activities can and should be ‘optimised’ and that nagging feeling that we should be doing everything – whether it is cleaning the house, exercising, or raising a child – as efficiently as possible. Case in point: I am writing this post about a podcast I listened to while on a run, while my daughter takes her nap. In this model we flatten all activities into an endless to do list on which everything becomes a form of ‘work’, a way of attributing value to your activities of the day.

The evolution of many jobs along with the development of communication methods mean that many of the boundaries demarcating the realm of ‘work’ have now dissolved. Work and leisure have become ‘leaky’ making it more difficult to extract yourself from the tentacles of work. We may find ourselves responding to emails in the evening while half watching a TV boxset, telling ourselves that we are successfully marrying work and leisure, while in reality we are failing to optimise either. Or we may regard leisure time and holidays merely as a way to recoup so that we can return to work refreshed and maximise our hours of productivity.

When it comes to leisure we may question what it is we feel it’s ‘worth’ doing as we are driven by a constant desire to be creating and doing something of value and meaning. If you are like my there may always be a little voice in your head telling you that you should be being more productive. It’s the growing tyranny of the side hustle.

Finally, I found the idea of our desire to externalise activities to make them feel more ‘real’ and to allow us to get feedback and validation, particularly interesting. Here Thompson and Petersen argue that the work isn’t perceived to be ‘real’ until you email/slack about it; the holiday isn’t real until you Instagram pictures of it; the promotion isn’t real until you put it on LinkedIn. We feel forced to externalise our acts and achievements and are always thinking about how they will play out amongst other people. By externalising we open up a space for feedback and gratification in the form of ‘likes’, ‘views’ etc. However the result is that we lose the joy of the thing itself in the moment. As a fervent Strava user and someone who gets anxious when the pedometer on my phone doesn’t record all of my steps because it’s been in the buggy and not in my pocket, I have to admit to having sympathy with this desire for externalisation.

If some of this resonates with you I strongly recommend listening to the podcast and reading the articles it discusses. And as always I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of the above.

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