Business

Workism: When Jobs Become Identities

Dan Nicholson

In modern American culture, the concept of work has transcended its historical boundaries to mean much more than a paycheck. What was once a means of economic sustenance has now evolved into something far more profound—an emblem of identity and purpose. This phenomenon, often referred to as “workism,” a term coined by Derek Thompson in 2019, has reshaped the way individuals perceive and prioritize their professional lives. The rise of workism reflects a broader societal trend wherein work has become the defining aspect of personal identity for most Americans. 

While perhaps admirable by our current cultural standards, workism has consequences. Namely, can work actually fulfill our identity and community needs? Delving deeper into the roots and ramifications of workism unveils a complex interplay between societal norms, economic pressures, and personal aspirations.

Work Is the Center of American Life

Workism, defined as the belief that work is the centerpiece of one's identity and life's purpose, has become a dominant ideology in American society, writes Thompson in The Atlantic. And it rests on three foundational pillars that sustain its pervasive influence. 

Firstly, there's the substitution of traditional religious values with the pursuit of professional success. The American dream—that mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it. “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,” writes Thompson

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

What’s more, this shift defies economic logic—and economic history. The rich have always worked less than the poor, because they could afford to. But today’s rich, particularly college-educated men, have used their wealth to buy the ultimate prize of… more work. “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,” writes Thompson. 

The second pillar of workism is the expectation for companies to provide a sense of community and belonging, further blurring the boundaries between personal and professional spheres. Millennials are particularly affected by this pillar. Raised in an era of economic uncertainty and social media influence that has amplified the pressure to craft an image of success, young Americans have found that striving for self-purpose and meaningful relationships through their work is the pathway to happiness. While research shows that employees who feel a sense of belonging are 21% more likely to be engaged at work, it’s hardly the only place to find meaning. 

“There is nothing wrong with work, when work must be done. And there is no question that an elite obsession with meaningful work will produce a handful of winners who hit the workist lottery: busy, rich, and deeply fulfilled,” writes Thompson. “But a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”

This brings us to the final pillar: the balance between productivity and exhaustion. The relentless pursuit of success has led to burnout rather than fulfillment. In a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95% of teens said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including “helping other people who are in need” (81%) or getting married (47%). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning. Is it escapable?

How Not to Identify As Your Work 

Thompson’s ultimate argument with workism is that we think work will provide a sense of community and transcendence, but that it ultimately falls flat. “I tend to agree with this diagnosis,” says Arthur C. Brooks, author and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, “not because workism destroys our work-life balance, but because it makes our life and work indistinguishable.”

While a myopic focus on our jobs may promise fulfillment, it often comes at a steep cost to the self.  “If you are wondering whether I’m talking about you, ask yourself: Is my job my identity? Do I sacrifice friend and family relationships for my job or career? If I lost my job, would I grieve as if there were a death in the family?,” writes Brooks. “If you answered affirmatively to any of these questions, you—like thousands (perhaps millions) of others—fall prey to professional self-objectification.”

Breaking free of workism requires both cultural and personal shifts. Pushing for public policies that advocate for universal well-being, such as universal basic income and subsidized child care, offers a tangible path forward in mitigating the adverse effects of workism. If the system doesn’t tether our well-being to our jobs, we may begin to see ourselves as separate from work.

On a personal level, cultivating meaningful relationships and hobbies outside the realm of work is essential in reclaiming a sense of balance and fulfillment. Basically, get some space from your job. Take a real vacation (no sneaking looks at emails) or actually log off on the weekends. Studies by Harvard Business School's Ashley Whillans suggest that individuals who prioritize leisure time and social connections report higher levels of life satisfaction and overall well-being. Second, find friends who don’t see you as a professional object. When you spend too much time with these friends—“deal friends,” not “real friends” as Brooks calls them—your worth and identity is only tied to your professional output. These relationships can also encourage you to develop interests and virtues outside of your career.

Conclusion

Workism, with its allure of purpose and identity, has undeniably reshaped the fabric of American society. Yet, as we navigate the complexities of this cultural phenomenon, it's crucial to recognize the inherent risks it poses to individual well-being and societal norms. While the pursuit of meaningful work is admirable, tethering our identities solely to our careers can lead to a profound sense of disillusionment and burnout. As we chart a path forward, it's imperative to foster a culture that values holistic well-being over relentless productivity. By embracing policies that prioritize universal welfare and cultivating meaningful relationships outside the realm of work, we can begin to reclaim a sense of balance and fulfillment in our lives.

Sources

The Atlantic

Fast Company

Arthur C. Brooks/Harvard Business School

Dan Nicholson is the author of “Rigging the Game: How to Achieve Financial Certainty, Navigate Risk and Make Money on Your Own Terms,” deemed a best-seller by USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to founding the award-winning accounting and financial consulting firm Nth Degree CPAs, Dan has created and run multiple small businesses, including Certainty U and the Certified Certainty Advisor program.

No items found.
Top
Nth Degree - Safari Dan
Next Up In
Business
Top
Nth Degree - Safari Dan
Mid
Pinnacle Chiropractic (Mid)
Banner for Certainty Tools, Play your Game.  Blue gradient color with CertaintyU Logo
Top
Nth Degree - Safari Dan
Mid
Pinnacle Chiropractic (Mid)