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.
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?