The journalist who will make you hate work: the three pillars of “workism,” when work becomes religion

Derek Thompson, an American journalist, publishes a book in which he explains how, in his country, the culture of work is hybridized in society as if it were a religious belief.

Everyone has faith in something. While it is true that the number of believers in the Western world is declining, this does not mean that human beings have evolved to the point of abandoning a strong religious spirit. Consumer society and technological advances have led us to focus on other things. After all, many of the things we have today would have been considered magical not so long ago: the fact that something like video calling, which allows you to communicate with people across the world, is so standardized would have been unthinkable in another era.

What about work, how do these two aspects of human life relate to each other in our time? In the United States, a nation with a much more rigid work culture than that of the Mediterranean, people are beginning to talk about “workism” following the publication of a book by Derek Thompson, a journalist at The Atlantic, which analyzes how work itself has replaced the function of giving meaning and identity to the individual, which was once fulfilled by religion. Especially in an age when self-exploitation is in vogue, because in many cases, if you don't have a job, you have to invent one.

Workism,” according to Thompson, is “the belief that work is not limited to mere economic production, but has become the center of people's identity and life project. Clearly, as early as May '68, left-wing movements such as situationism saw work time and free time as part of the same vital alienation. In other words, it's not only about the time we spend producing, but also about what we do with the time that working hours leave us, which is mainly devoted to consumption, whether of concrete, tangible products, social trends, or the television content of the entertainment industry.

Leisure and Business

“The decline of traditional faith in the United States has coincided with the explosion of new atheisms,” Derek Thompson explains. “Some people worship beauty, some worship identity politics, some worship childcare.” But everyone believes in something. And ‘workism' is one of the most powerful options, bringing a lot of people together. He says the country's work culture has blended with elements of other religions such as Buddhism. “Today, happiness is about finding a balance between business and leisure,” he explains in his book On Work: Money, Meaning, Identity (Work: Money, Meaning, Identity), which was the subject of a recent article on the website Fast & Company dedicated to employment.

Work “increases academic anxiety in children and adolescents and exacerbates economic stress in adults.”

If we turn to etymology, the term “leisure” comes from the Roman word “otium,” which referred to all activities that were not aimed at survival or maintenance. In this sense, “business” is the negation of “otium”, the fact of thinking about a way to obtain money or some kind of reward. Based on this association of ideas, what Derek Thompson poses as a problem, namely to conceive of happiness as this balance between leisure time and work time, is not so bad and is based on an Aristotelian principle that considers that virtue is in the middle. However, when it is the very concept of “happiness” that seems to impose itself (something ultimately unattainable, to be seen as a goal), this duality will never find a balance.

Workism” acts on three axes or rests on three pillars. Firstly, “that people believe that work can bring them what religion used to bring them”. First, “that people believe that work can give them what religion used to give them”, that “businesses and companies create a sense of community among their customers” (which has been happening for some time with sophisticated products or markets such as and cell phones), and that “feeling dedicated to one's work makes one more productive and gives one's life a meaning”. Thus, at the individual level, “workism increases academic anxiety in children and teenagers, aggravates stress in the adult economy, generates disastrous working hours for employees” and, ultimately, “exacerbates the feeling of loneliness among retirees”.

The (dis)virtues of work

Obviously, this all seems obvious: from a very young age, we are inculcated with the culture of effort and the fact of making a career or preparing for a profitable profession, which has a solid expectation of sustaining itself over time and generating income. Clearly, work is intimately tied to the role we must play in society, as a counterpart to a good or service that others need and that you can provide. Author David Graeber's analysis of jobs without utility, the bullshit jobs, in which levels of job insecurity and anxiety are highest, is more lucid.

But what Thompson is referring to, at first glance, is the morality that has emerged in recent years among the technology populace and the high-tech companies, centralized in Silicon Valley, that exacerbate the values of working with them as well as the values of consuming their products. This too is part of the peculiarities of the American workplace. “My country's culture is too work-centric, we're one of the only OECD countries that doesn't have sick leave or parental leave at the national level,” he says on the employment website.