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How work became the millennial religion of choice

More young people are defining themselves by what they do–and who they work for.

How work became the millennial religion of choice
[Photos: cjwhitewine/iStock; monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

How do you describe yourself to someone new? What’s the first thing you tell them?

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You probably start with your name, but it’s safe to assume your job title or employer is going to come soon after, especially if you’re under the age of 40.

As young people move away from religion, many are now deriving their sense of community, meaning, and self-identity from their work. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 83% of Americans over the age of 40 have some sort of religious affiliation, and 57% say religion is very important to their lives. At the same time, only 66% of those under the age of 40 are affiliated with a religious institution, and only 51% say religion is very important to their lives.

According to Jobvite’s annual Job Seeker Nation survey, 42% of American workers define themselves by the jobs they perform and/or the companies they work for, and that number rises to 45% among those under the age of 40. Furthermore, of the 42% who say that they define themselves through their work, 65% say it’s “very important” to who they are as people.

[Image: Jobvite]
“We have spiritual lives, we have physical lives, we like to have intellectual stimuli in our lives, we have our communities and our families and friends; humans are complex, and to have a really healthy balance, it requires all of those components,” says Rachel Bitte, Jobvite’s chief people officer. “Expecting all of that to come from your work could be an unrealistic expectation.”

It was never supposed to be like this

For the vast majority of human history, work was generally considered a burden and a means to an end, while leisure was considered not only the reward of work, but the basis of culture and society. As a result, many predicted that individual wealth would lead to more leisure time, while societal wealth would decrease the length of the workday, eventually eliminating it entirely.

Instead, the exact opposite happened. In 1980, the highest earners worked the fewest hours, but by 2005, the richest 10% of married men worked the most hours on average, according to research compiled by Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson for a recent article, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.”

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“I was always curious about this phenomenon; why were the rich choosing to buy more work, given that they can buy whatever they want?” Thompson tells Fast Company. “It occurred to me that they were placing work at the top of the pedestal, and this group of American elites, who is among the most secular cohorts of American history, had essentially replaced an old-fashioned definition of God with a new definition of God, which was work.”

Thompson adds that this concept of pursuing passion through work can be beneficial to many–and he includes himself among them–but a majority aren’t able to pursue meaningful work, and the expectations placed on work are often unrealistic.

“We expect to realize our full humanity in work, within the job, rather than other parts of life. That is new,” says Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa and author of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.

Hunnicutt adds that the fear of automation replacing human labor would have been unimaginable to the philosophers and thinkers who questioned the meaning of work throughout history. “Before, the promise of technology was labor-saving devices,” he says. “Now it frightens us. We can’t imagine an alternative to work.”

Hunnicutt adds that many of history’s thinkers eagerly looked forward to a future where machines did our work for us, freeing us up to focus on the more important things. Wealth, in other words–at both a societal and individual level–was supposed to provide us with the luxury of not having to work.

A society built on work cannot stand

Some might consider a society built around work to have advantages over a society that considers work a burden, and that the former would be more inclusive and open than one based on religion. Thompson says that given the choice between “workism” and the religious societies of old, he would choose “workism every day of the week, and twice on Sundays,” but adds that it shouldn’t necessarily be one or the other.

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Hunnicutt, however, fears that a society based around work is inherently flawed and bound to fail, as it prioritizes short-term individual gains over long-term, shared prosperity.

“Work by definition, in the marketplace–which is a place of competition–is hard as a place it seems to me for cooperation, for generosity and giving, for realizing our full humanity,” he says. “By definition, even the best of our jobs are about competition, of outdoing the people around us.”

A society that praises work, according to Hunnicutt, is ruthless in its regard for both the natural world and for others, and studies suggest it’s the culprit behind a range of negative trends afflicting millennials and workers more broadly.

Recent studies have found that employee stress levels rose nearly 20% in the last three decades, and a majority feel that work is having a negative impact on their personal relationships. Today, 8 in 10 Americans are afflicted by stress, according to a recent Gallup survey, which suggests one of the primary causes is work.

Furthermore, the National Institute of Mental Health found that more than 7% of American adults and 13% of those aged 18 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode in 2017. Workplace-related stress has also been linked to less sex, more loneliness, and higher rates of career burnout among millennials.

“I’m not a psychologist, but I do think that self-centeredness that is at the heart of work–being a self-made man or woman–is alienating,” says Hunnicutt. “It separates us from nature, from other people, from beauty, from God; we become profoundly alone.”

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Social media is the problem–and maybe a solution

Many believe social media to be a significant cause of alienation and stress among young people.

“Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about the neighbor next door anymore; it’s about thousands of your classmates and what they’re doing with their lives post-graduation,” says Bitte. “I think that people have found that social media can not only be a way of bragging about your job, but can become an extension of your job,” adds Thompson.

Hunnicutt, however, sees a silver lining. While comparing yourself to your peers once promoted the pursuit of material wealth, social media has made real-life experiences the primary status symbol for younger generations.

“As people turn their attention from tangible wealth to life experiences–and more importantly to personal transformations–that’s going to be a possible avenue to an ‘age of experiences,'” says Hunnicutt. “If that’s a status symbol, I have no problem with that.”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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