Some people look for life’s meaning in work, dedicating themselves to their jobs with an almost religious zeal. There is a term for this phenomenon: workism. But the pandemic has upended jobs, and with it, our views on work and the place it should hold in our lives. We spoke with sociologists and professionals about devotion to work, during the crisis and beyond.
In 2018, after more than two years spent developing his startup, Carl Martin decided that it was time to call it a day. Ping, his digital business card company, was broke, and the experience had left him exhausted. Martin, who describes himself as having a “big ambition, high performer-like mentality”, tried to imagine what his life would look like next. But the answers he came up with were all invariably tied to his career. This bothered him. “I was like, wow, why is so much of the story that I’m trying to tell about my work?”
A few months later, in early 2019, the American journalist Derek Thompson would go on to capture this phenomenon in an article on “workism”. This differs from workaholism, when a person becomes addicted to work. “[It] is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose,” wrote Thompson, “and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” The piece not only coined a phrase: it resonated with millions of workers feeling frustrated, anxious and even depressed over societal pressure to find a job that they love, and expect it to reward them with not just money, but also a sense of community, purpose and transcendence.
Working hours have been declining since the Industrial Revolution due to advances in technology and productivity—workers in the UK have seen their total annual working hours fall by 24% in the past 50 years alone—yet it is work and not leisure that continues to dominate our lives. In 2019, the average working week in the UK was 36 hours and 36 minutes, according to Eurostat data. We are still far from the 15-hour work week that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted for the 21st century in his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.
The American sociologist Jamie K McCallum, author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream, sees workism as a reaction to socio-political phenomena rather than a choice. “It is an outgrowth of changes to the structure of the American political economy over the past 30 or 40 years,” he said. McCullum argues that one of the results of these changes is the popular discourse on meaningful work. “Partially that’s human quality, and partially it’s the result of an ideological transformation which has taught us that part of doing one’s job is loving it,” he said. “The meaningful work discourse is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do not work longer because we love work. We love work because we work longer.”
If it seems that workism is inherently American, the shift towards a meaningful work ethic is global. Several surveys show that millennials, the generation with the highest rate of underemployment and the lowest earnings, look for jobs with meaning, not just a fat pay cheque. As one recent survey of 19,000 millennials working across 25 countries concluded: “A majority of millennials everywhere say purpose is a priority.”
Can you really find your life’s purpose in the context of a 9-to-5 job? No, not according to millennial Charlotte Cramer, a former brand strategist. Her book, The Purpose Myth: Change the World, Not Your Job, grew out of her own disillusionment with working in the advertising industry. She believes that we need to start having realistic conversations about the role work should play in our lives. “The reason I think it’s important today is because if your identity is tied up in your job, what happens when 40 million people lose their jobs?” she said.
The pandemic has raised pertinent questions about the importance of work in terms of self-identity. For some, their job has been an anchor to reality and identity in times of chaos, while for others, work revealed itself to be draining and devoid of meaning. According to a recent survey of 2,000 Brits, 41% are considering quitting their jobs for more fulfilling work post-Covid.
Cramer spent part of the pandemic working as an innovation strategist at a hospital while writing her book on the side. “It was an interesting conflict. In some ways, I thought I should be so grateful for having a job right now—and I was,” she said. “But having so much time to learn and not being distracted by consumerism really enabled me to become more in touch with my true identity that isn’t caught up in work, and also consumerism”.
Cramer acknowledges that throwing yourself into work during the pandemic as a means of distraction can be effective, but it is likely to affect your mental health. “In a way, that’s adaptive because it helps someone get through difficult times. But it has had some catastrophic effects in terms of burnout, where you don’t have that delineation of work-life balance,” said Cramer. “I think some people wake up now, or maybe it’s going to happen in six months’ time, and feel exhausted, like they’ve entirely lost their identities.”
Longer hours have become reality during the Covid-19 pandemic: research shows that the average working day increased by 30 minutes in the UK and by 17 minutes in France for those working from home during the first lockdown. Marc Loriol, professor of sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris, has carried out research on intensive work engagement and its risks. He believes that physical distance from the workplaces can lead to employees working harder. “When we’re working from home, far away from our colleagues and supervisors, there’s often a feeling that the work won’t be seen, and thus won’t be sufficiently recognised and rewarded. So we are tempted to work even harder to prove that no, it’s not because we’re at home in our pyjamas that we’re doing nothing,” he said.
“But the other thing is, when we’re very invested in our jobs, we need to be supported and seen by our colleagues and supervisors, for that strong engagement to make sense. And that’s very problematic when people are working from home.”
Martin, who decided to leave his “workist” identity behind when he folded his company, recently started a job as a performance and development coach. Changing careers amid the pandemic, he caught himself returning to his previous workist attitude: he applied himself disproportionately to his job and compromised other aspects of his life. “It feels like a constant battle,” he said. “The pandemic hasn’t been conducive to maintaining a more rounded identity, and having clarity on what that looks like, in this chaos.”
Yet the pandemic has also brought leisure time into focus, and raised questions about leading less work-intensive, workcentric lives. According to Brendan Burchell, a professor in social sciences at the University of Cambridge, we simply don’t know yet whether it will have a lasting impact on work attitudes. “Some people who were furloughed were learning to play musical instruments or learning a craft, and they realised how much they loved doing that. They got real satisfaction that they hadn’t been getting from work. Now they’re saying they would never want to go back to work full-time,” he said. But the impact of Covid-19 on work lives has meant “the exact opposite directions for different people”, depending on personal circumstances.
Burchell’s research on “employment dosage the recommended amount of paid work we need for optimal wellbeing—shows that work is good for our mental health. But we don’t need a lot of it to get the mental benefits of paid employment. “In fact, you get just as much benefit from working one day a week as you do as five days a week,” he said. “But once you go below that and you’re not working at all, that’s when levels of anxiety, depression and unhappiness increase a lot.”
The Cambridge academic is interested in the “post-work” debate, which imagines a society free of work—the opposite of a world ruled by the do-what-you-love ideology. What he believes to be possible is rather a world “where paid work, employment, is a much smaller part of our lives, and all those other things that we might want to do is a much larger part of our lives”.
The pandemic has certainly created a space for challenging the norms of our work-life balance. Martin says that he has been able to invest more time in nourishing activities—painting, yoga and cooking—but he admits to still feeling “defined” by his work. “But I’m really aware of it,” he added.
It is unclear if the pandemic will mint a new generation of workists—or serve as a tipping point to reimagine what we expect from our jobs. “One thing we need to be acutely aware of is that wanting to work that hard is a privilege. With that in mind, I’m going to be mindful and thoughtful about how I utilise work,” said Martin. “We use work for something to do, for financial means, community, purpose, growth. What I believe is that as a society we need to do more to equip people with tools to build a life more holistically.”
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