Why (worship) work?


Do you ever just sloooooooow down and savor life? Not just work?


By Caitlin Kelly

A recent story in The Atlantic tries to unpack why Americans are so obsessed with work:

Workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? 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; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary 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.

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. 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.

Working in a free-market, winner-take-all capitalist country like the U.S. is…instructive if you’ve lived in any other country that treats workers as slightly more than fuel. I grew up in Canada, ages 5 to 30, and spent a year in France at 25, so I have experienced (and enjoyed) life and work in two other nations that actually provide social safety nets, paid vacation and even paid maternal leave.

To arrive in 21st. century American work culture is to feel one’s been catapulted back to some feudal era — except even serfs got something. Women are still fighting every day for better wages. Age discrimination is rampant. Unions are the smallest and weakest in a century.

Wages remain stagnant for many of us despite record corporate profits.


Time….or money? If you want more private time, it’s likely to cost you income


Yet Americans are exhorted daily to work harder! Be more productive! Longer hours!

If you’re struggling financially — as many are — work is what you have to do, and a lot of it to just survive. But once you’re past survival, then what? Oh, right. Work more, because…

Because it’s the only identity many Americans are truly comfortable taking pride in.

Being a parent? Good luck with that! A fortune in childcare, daycare and skyrocketing higher education costs. Hobbies? Who’s got time? Private passion projects? Quick, turn them into financially profitable side hustles.

Being creative artistically or musically? Quick, get an Etsy site or YouTube channel. Monetize every breath!

When I recently announced on Facebook that I’d be addressing a photography conference — and had begun my career as a shooter — one friend expressed (admiring) astonishment that I had “another skill set.”

I have plenty! But this is so deeply unAmerican. Every thought, action, book, conference,meeting must — de facto — provide financial profit to someone or, it seems, you’re just wasting time.

How about:







American work culture leaves no room, no time and — most toxic and crucial — no respect for those things. Patting your dog or making a fantastic meal for your wife or spending two hours consoling a heartbroken friend?

No economic value!

Here’s a beautiful piece on Quartz about the value of slowly and carefully building a community, not just a bank balance:


In seeing his community, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I did not have my own. I had friends and a loving family. But as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of 24 hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win.

I had never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.


I spent my own 20s making myself and many people around me nuts with my white-hot ambition and professional drive. By 30 I was fried. Since then, I’ve worked to live, amassing enough money to pay for the things we need (including retirement) — but also taking as much vacation as we can afford. Some years that’s a few months’ worth, albeit in two or 3-week increments.

Even that’s considered weird since even many Americans who get paid vacation are too scared to actually use it (OMG you’re….relaxing?!) or too broke to go anywhere.

Nor do I work nights and weekends or when we go away to rest and recharge.

I know most of my competitors do. I also know how tired and resentful they are.


Do you live to work?


28 thoughts on “Why (worship) work?

  1. No living to work over here. I am an administrator in a highly regulated, extremely safety conscious arena. The buck stops with me. I work very, very hard, and I enjoy my work. But it’s a job, not my life. Right now I am on two weeks’ holidays and I am in beautiful Vancouver. I am going to the island tomorrow to enjoy myself together with my M.
    I lived in Phoenix for a year and saw the stark differences between the US work ethic and ours. It’s dominated by corporations who can suck you dry, so Americans seem to be sort of brainwashed into working hard so their employers can exploit them.
    I don’t know how you keep going (but I get that you have to do what you have to do – yup, I certainly do) knowing what you know. It would drive me nuts.

    1. Glad you are enjoying a break!

      I agree!

      I moved to NY in 1989 and very quickly saw these bizarre expectations — so I somewhat (a lot) derailed what had been a white-hot Canadian career. I couldn’t imagine spending the next decade fighting someone in the next cubicle for the next tiny step up the editorial ladder…in hopes of…another step.

      So I am a happy outlier as a freelancer. I don’t need or crave the external validation of a Fancy Job Title (I’ve had a bunch!) Jose is in Florida this week (!) photo editing for the PGA )and has an interview next week in NYC for another major sporting event freelance editing job…but is now (!) too busy (4 years after leaving the NYT) to take on more work.

      He and I made more than $100,000 in 2018, which I think is damn good for 2 full-time freelancers in a dying industry who are not 35. We’re fun, lively, adaptable and very good at our work. Nor do we work like pack animals — so I know we bring an energy others can’t.

      I did interview for a comm’s job with JetBlue last week at a very healthy salary but haven’t heard back and, if not, tant pis. I know what full-time employers expect — I used to get the exhausted grouchy leftovers when Jose had a FT job. In our 19 years together, the past four have been by far the happiest — because they are at OUR control and pace.

      I don’t mind working. I would be bored and lonely without it, I suspect.

      But I absolutely reject the idea that my total human value is purely economic —- and I do often feel lonely amidst people who think that way.

  2. cadencewoodland

    Oh man, you KNOW I have thoughts on this. Especially the ideas which are baked into American culture about success and failure and where the responsibility for those lie… Unlearning cultural lessons or programming is the work of years.

    1. I like living in the States but, in all honesty, I feel sorry for those who don’t see this clearly. I think it creates some very real misery, mentally, emotionally and financially.

  3. carolyn

    I do not live to work, I work because I have to. I’m constantly searching for ways to lessen our expenses so that I can retire…working is destroying what I have of my health and I think I would be better without the stress. Chronic illness takes has taken so much and my job takes what little is left. That being said, my husband lives for his job. Works on vacations (which he just started taking regularly a few years ago, nights, weekends, etc.) I remember going to Vermont with our children when they were young and cell phones were new. Three times a day, if we weren’t out and about, we would drive to the top of the mountain so he could get a signal and call the office. It’s much easier now with smart phones! We’ve negotiated vacation rules…he’s always up earlier than I am, so he works in the morning, checks messages and mail in lines (we vacation at Disney frequently) and when I go back to the resort in the afternoon to rest. I bring my computer on vacation only to do payroll…

    1. Really sorry to read this — the pace at which Americans are expected to work is, literally, industrial — as though we are able to do so without very real costs to us. But…who cares?! Not employers, unless very rare ones.

      One of the many things this expectation destroys is….family life, emotional ties, deep friendship, caregiving….All the HUM AN connections we notice and praise at people’s funerals, not their goddamned productivity. NO ONE has ever eulogized someone for being PRODUCTIVE.

      Every ounce of our attention and energy is a gift. When we “give” (sell) it all to an employer, what is left to nurture us and those we love?

  4. I hear it’s worse in South Korea. They actually passed laws there to keep people from working 50-60 hours a week there, it was that bad!

    While I like my job well enough–it provides for my needs and has great benefits–I need the time to relax or I go crazy. And that includes writing sometimes, which I love but is also another job. I occasionally do need time to just read or watch a movie or something.

      1. For the moment, anyway. I hear that could change in a few centuries.

        In any case, we need to reevaluate what’s most important in our lives. Somehow, I doubt working ourselves to death for a chance at higher pay should be high on the list.

  5. Man, this really resonates with me. I am an artist and at-home dad. So often I find myself feeling guilt about taking a break and relaxing for a bit. I have to trick my workism-infected mind. I started scheduling daily reading time on my agenda because without it penned in I wouldn’t do it. I would sit down with a book and have that little voice saying, “shouldn’t you be doing something else, something productive?” Now I can point to the schedule and say, “Look. It’s right there. Reading time.”

  6. rwh

    Hmmm sorry if this posts twice- not sure if my response made it.

    Hi Caitlin, Thank you for another thought provoking post (I don’t think I’ve ever before commented twice in a week!). I have a new job, which took me a while to obtain, mostly because I’m mid-50s I think. I’m grateful to have a job, and one in which my education and skills are being used. But my co-workers wear their long hours as a badge of honor, and it drives me crazy. And 2 of them are based in London! I am constantly hearing “I worked 14 hours yesterday” and the like. I don’t think they were too pleased when I told each of the people on my team of 5 that I guard my personal time and will not be working those kind of hours. Of course I don’t mind the occasional project that requires extra work, but on a regular basis I just won’t do it. Yesterday I was corresponding with my colleague in the UK later in the day- it was 9pm for her- and I said I had to go because I had an activist commitment. I KNOW she was thinking “I’m working at 9pm and she’s leaving at 5.” But I’m going to keep at it, and hopefully train them all. I definitely work to live. Can’t wait to stop working for good.

    1. I hear you!

      It’s very tough when there’s this stupid peer pressure to work long hours because….some people think it makes them look good. This just tells me they’re inefficient.

      I agree that guarding your private life — and personal commitments — is really important. It’s made much more difficult if you are the outlier.

      Good luck with the new job…

  7. back in my advertising days, i used to work very long hours. after going back to school and becoming a teacher, i realized just how much time i spent at work.

  8. Scott

    There are a lot of reasons for this, but it starts early for Americans (believe me) and gets ratcheted up when you get your first summer job. Also, depending upon which adult is giving you the speech, “leisure” can be turned into a derogatory word to describe something that should be kept as separate from your usual day rather than something that should be integrated daily.

    1. I started working part-time as a lifeguard in high school. Canada and Europe are just different. We really value a well-lived life, not one devoted to chasing $$$$$$ all the time. I think it’s madness and I see so much unhappiness, even with those who have plenty.

  9. Here in France we have a total of 11 “jours de repos” for 2019 (in addition to our annual 5 weeks’ paid vacation.) So in total we have 6 weeks and 4 days paid vacation for 2019.

    Jan 1st, Apr 22 (Easter Monday), May 1st (May Day), May 8th (Victory Day, the end of WWII), May 30 (Ascension Day), June 10 (Pentecote), August 15 (Assumption of Mary), August 16 (a free company Holiday tacked on to the 15th to make a long 4-day weekend), Nov 1st (All Saints’ Day), November 11 (Armistice Day) and, finally, Dec 25.

    Interesting to note the number of Catholic holidays in a country that vigorously claims to be secular!

    1. Insane — but also lovely.

      The only way an American can have six weeks off is if they’re self-employed and can afford to lose that much business — since every day we don’t work is lost income and our expenses never change.

      Non-profits can attract talent by offering more time off in lieu of larger salaries.

  10. Margaret

    I thought I’d let you know how much you are influencing my thought processes at the moment. I think we might be on a similar trajectory (let’s call it becoming wiser, rather than getting older) but oh boy, I’m really starting to think I should cut down on the number of hours I work.
    It’s not just an age thing, although that’s certainly a factor, it’s really more about deciding what you really want to do, given that there are only so many hours in the day. And yes, this includes giving more time to simple pleasures such as reading and gardening.
    Lovely stuff, keep it coming please.

      1. Margaret

        So true, but also kind of wonderful. Every day I thank my lucky stars for having these choices about retirement/ what to do next/ how to make it meaningful. I appreciate that for many people, the choices just aren’t there. I’m deeply grateful but also very aware of my privileged position. Mostly grateful for my health. Preaching to the converted I know!

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