I keep seeing articles that are critical of modernity–be it helicopter parenting, overstimulation in children, ugly architecture, careerism, perfectionism, or excessive self-improvement–going viral, and all published within the last year. The most recent example is The Atlantic article Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, which was shared over 16 times on Reddit, which is astounding. Instead of careerism, he calls it ‘workism’, because I guess careerism has already been done enough times that we need to create another neologism to describe the same thing.
One observation is that all of the aforementioned links are from left-wing sources–four from the New York Times alone. This shows how criticism of modernity is not just unique to the ‘right’, but also the ‘left’, too, thus making it a shared narrative, which is why these articles keep going viral. Even someone who reads 4chan and the_Donald can relate to the themes even if they don’t ideologically agree with the source and the author. This is further evidence of how reactionary themes are becoming mainstream, as part of an unfolding backlash against modernity.
Furthermore, this can be considered indictment on the Protestant work ethic, which centuries later still has an effect on American society and culture. .
According to Weber, Protestants developed an ascetism and a sense of religious duty that valorized and promoted work for the sake of economic gain.
Conversely, the (pre-modern) Catholic did not see money as an end in itself, but rather their ethos was oriented more toward appreciating economic gain for the sake of the individual, the community, and (ideally) the Kingdom of God.
For instance, Weber: for Thomas Aquinas “labour is only necessary… for the maintenance of individual and community.” The duty to labor does not apply to those who can get by with a more spiritual or monastic life.
Weber also ties the Catholic ethic to an understanding of the “cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin.” There was an emphasis on intentionality for single (good or bad) actions, whereas the Puritans were demanding “a life of good works combined into a unified system” and became stingy (so to speak) about atonement.
Additionally, the reactionary-right is critical of careerism because is means delaying family formation and leads to lower birth rates. The left opposes it on more existentialist and psychological grounds; people are not ‘made’ to work so much.
The author writes:
In 1980, the highest-earning men actually worked fewer hours per week than middle-class and low-income men, according to a survey by the Minneapolis Fed. But that’s changed. By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. In that same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group. Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.
This explains much, if not all, of the gender pay gap. Even QZ, a left-leaning publication, admits so.
This shift defies economic logic—and economic history. The rich have always worked less than the poor, because they could afford to. The landed gentry of preindustrial Europe dined, danced, and gossiped, while serfs toiled without end. In the early 20th century, rich Americans used their ample downtime to buy weekly movie tickets and dabble in sports. Today’s rich American men can afford vastly more downtime. But they have used their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!
I wonder how much of this can be attributed to concerns over not having enough for retirement or if there is an emergency. Most Americans underestimate how much they will need for retirement. Medical costs can be disastrous.
Perhaps long hours are part of an arms race for status and income among the moneyed elite. Or maybe the logic here isn’t economic at all. It’s emotional—even spiritual. 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. “For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play,” the economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
I came to a similar observation in 2016 in the post Wealth Creation as the New American Religion. Although The Atlantic is left-wing, many on the right can agree that the attainment and obsession with wealth has become a substitute for religion.
One of the benefits of being an observant Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian is that these God-fearing worshippers put their faith in an intangible and unfalsifiable force of goodness. But work is tangible, and success is often falsified. To make either the centerpiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.
Success can be quantified objectively by much money and status (such as social media followers) one has relative to others; morality and virtue cannot.
While it’s inadvisable to paint 85 million people with the same brush, it’s fair to say that American Millennials have been collectively defined by two external traumas. The first is student debt. Millennials are the most educated generation ever, a distinction that should have made them rich and secure. But rising educational attainment has come at a steep price. Since 2007, outstanding student debt has grown by almost $1 trillion, roughly tripling in just 12 years. And since the economy cratered in 2008, average wages for young graduates have stagnated—making it even harder to pay off loans.
If college grads are graduating with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, they have little choice but to work.
The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion. Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed, tired and bitter. But the overwork myths survive “because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies,” Griffith writes.
Not having enough money also makes people “stressed, tired and bitter”. Which the author addresses:
This can start with public policy. There is new enthusiasm for universal policies—like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance—which would make long working hours less necessary for all Americans. These changes alone might not be enough to reduce Americans’ devotion to work for work’s sake, since it’s the rich who are most devoted. But they would spare the vast majority of the public from the pathological workaholism that grips today’s elites, and perhaps create a bottom-up movement to displace work as the centerpiece of the secular American identity.
However, entitlement spending is already substantial.
The author does a good job addressing all the possible objections to his arguments, and then at the end, nudging, not forcing, the reader to his conclusion. This is why the aritcle was so viral.
Ideally, people would be able to find meaning in things that don’t involve office work and other tedium, yet also have enough money to cover expenses and have fulfilling lives. The problem with idealism is it presents a problem, but either there is no solution or the solution is unworkable or has a big trade-off.