In the growing gospel of ‘workism,’ is all work holy?

Why We Wrote This

America’s Calvinist roots mean the “land of opportunity” has always valued working long hours, but debate is growing over whether it’s wise to seek a sense of purpose and identity from a job. We also noticed that sometimes US “work worship” neglects people who work with their hands.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Millennial workers, such as these at a cybersecurity company in Baltimore in 2015, say they are seeking a sense of purpose, not just a paycheck, from their job.

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Jake Hammel gets up at 5 a.m. and drives his Chevy Silverado to work, installing HVAC metal ductwork in commercial buildings or putting siding on homes.

“When you finish something and see you actually did something with your time, other than just, you know, punch the clock and earn a paycheck and get home as soon as possible, it just feels good,” says the father of two.

Americans, particularly millennials, are seen as living to work rather than working to live, in what has been dubbed the “religion of workism.” In the upper rungs of achievement, urban professionals and others have long celebrated the 100-hour work week, and “workism” is certainly not a new phenomenon.

But observers say this ethos includes a more invested quest for meaning than other generations’. For millennials, “a job is about more than a paycheck – it’s about a purpose,” a Gallup poll in 2016 concluded.

The focus of the debate so far, though, has been about a specific type of work. Mr. Hammel – who worked 70 hours a week at a tire factory before going to trade school – says he knows the drill well, but in a very different way.

Jake Hammel kinda gets why a bunch of Hollywood celebrities and Manhattan muckety-mucks might try to spend their considerable dime trying to finagle their kids into a big-name college.

His own are just in kindergarten and first grade. When he heard on the radio how the FBI caught 50 of the nation’s most successful and wealthy families paying bribes and faking the merits of their children to get into the nation’s most prestigious schools, he could at least understand their motives.

“You know, wherever you’re at financially, you can just kind of scale it down and think, well, if I had a percentage of my salary that I could try to buy my kids’ way through something, would I do it?” says Mr. Hammel, a sheet metal worker in Carlyle, Illinois, a rural town in the southern part of the state.

But, yeah, while one of the most of important values in his life is to take care of his family and provide for their future, it also means a lot to him to be able to work hard, earn an honest wage, and feel good about what he does. He wants to instill that in his children too: that no matter what they do, they should want to put in the work for what they want to achieve.

“Later on down the road I’d like to be able to see them have and do whatever it is that they want to do,” he says. “And, you know, I’m gonna work as hard as I can over the next 15, 20 years to give them as much as I can, but they’re going to have to put up some of their own dukes and work hard for themselves to get them in the front door.”

Last week’s news struck a deep bipartisan chord across the country after the Justice Department announced it had broken up a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme. A wide cross section of Americans remains stunned at how a cadre of elites, including Oscar-nominated actors, fashion designers, and high-powered New York attorneys, could spend as much as a college education itself to fake the merits of their children.

The scandal broke too in the midst of a wider national conversation that many were having about about the nature of American competition, the ideals of a meritocracy, and anxieties caused by a “religion of workism,” especially among millennials.

Behind the “gospel of T.G.I.M,” or “thank God it’s Monday,” preached by many of this generation’s competitive and mostly urban workaholics, lies a host of factors. One that cannot be discounted is economic anxiety stemming from growing up during the Great Recession and entering adulthood saddled with more than $1 trillion in collective college loans that have so far not guaranteed that this generation will have a more affluent life than its parents did. Certainly many Americans were zealous about seeking a sense of purpose from their jobs long before psychiatrist Wayne Oates published “Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction,” in 1971.

“Why we work so much is at least partly due to our national identity as hard-working, industrious people who live in the ‘land of opportunity’ where one can be self-made if only one tries hard enough,” says Carrie Bulger, professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “The Calvinist principles underlying the birth of at least part of the nation emphasized hard work, discipline, and frugality.

“And it’s is true that American workers still spend longer hours at work than any other developed nation in the world,” continues Professor Bulger. “It’s also true that we pay a psychological and physical toll for this in terms of rates of occupational stress, burnout, and stress-related illnesses.”

In the upper rungs of American achievement, urban professionals and others have wryly celebrated the 100-hour work week, and “workism” is certainly not a new phenomenon.

But as many millennials and others have embraced the tag #hustle to convey their commitment and brag about their hours worked, many observers say this ethos includes a more invested quest for meaning than other generations’. For millennials, “a job is about more than a paycheck – it’s about a purpose,” a Gallup poll in 2016 concluded.

“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,” noted Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, in his essay arguing the futility of seeking transcendence, rather than money, from a job. “Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed, tired and bitter.

The focus of the debate so far, though, has been about a specific type of work: the kind that asks for a college degree. Mr. Hammel says he knows the drill well, but in a very different way. After he graduated from high school in 2010, he didn’t think college was for him, so he went to work at a tire factory, working up to 70 hours a week.

“Every day you had a different shift, so you’d end up working 7 to 3 one day, and then you might be off for eight hours, and then have to be back for the 11 to 7 shift – you know, the midnight shift the ‘next’ day,” he says.

And it’s true, it was hard to find a sense of meaning in this work, and it took a while for him to eventually decide to go to trade school in St. Louis, where he learned the trade of a metal worker – a job that he says has given him a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction.

It’s even a bit ironic in today’s relatively robust economy to hear of the growing anxieties and sense of spiritual burnout at the daily grind, suggests David Broomhead, co-founder and CEO of Trade Hounds, a Boston start-up that connects trade workers.

“I’ve worked in both a traditional finance job and in the trades,” Mr. Broomhead says. “I can say the job satisfaction I had working in the trades was much higher than working in finance.” Construction workers, in fact, rank among the most happy and satisfied in the nation, he says.

At the same time, about 80 percent of construction companies are having trouble finding qualified craft workers, according to the annual report of The Associated Contractors of America.

“For decades, high school teachers and parents have told kids to go to college, because it’s the only way to get ahead and get a good paying job,” Mr. Broomhead says. “This has led to a huge drop-off in kids attending traditional vocational schools and getting into a skilled trade.”

“The bad news is this has led to a huge skilled labor shortage, and construction companies don’t have enough manpower to build America,” he continues. “The good news is tradespeople are cashing in, with wages increasing and more benefits on the job.”

Indeed, the construction sector had some of the sharpest rates of wage growth in the country, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.  

It’s not the easiest routine in the world, says Mr. Hammel. But when he gets up at 5 a.m. and drives his Chevy Silverado to work, installing HVAC metal ductwork in commercial buildings or putting siding on homes, “when you finish something and see you actually did something with your time, other than just, you know, punch the clock and earn a paycheck and get home as soon as possible, it just feels good.”

Same goes with his home life, helping with kids, planning a wedding with his wife-to-be in June, and finding time to play the fiddle with local bluegrass players. “It’s kinda hectic, but it’s nice that I can work hard at a job I like, I can get home every day and hang out with the kids, eat supper, and by that time, it’s homework, and then start getting them off to bed, and then do it all over again.”

“It can be tough,” he says. “But it’s very fulfilling. I’m happy.”

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