Workism is a new word, and it’s a good one. It captures the spirit of our elites, who from childhood are raised to be workers for work’s sake. Work is their priority, their imperative, their strategy, their solution, their delight, their governing philosophy.
Being masters who toil, they naturally judge the people below them by their own self-understanding and impose and reimpose upon them, simply, work. They will have us be like them, doing work without higher purpose, work without end.
“Workism” was coined in February 2019 by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson in a sharp essay, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.” Thompson has an eye for illustrative data:
In a 2018 paper on elite universities, researchers found that for women, the most important benefit of attending a selective college isn’t higher wages, but more hours at the office.
More work hours are now a sign of elite status. Not surprising, perhaps, given feminism’s preference for the cubicle over the homestead. But it’s not just women:
By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. In that same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group.
To our elites, leisure is not a privilege, or even desirable. There is no leisure: only wasted time.
Thompson speaks for his own set: “I am the very thing that I am criticizing.” Work for people like Thompson, he painfully admits, is a “kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community,” occupying the place that Christianity once held in American society.
In times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the values of a ruling class will be exposed, as the class swings into action and decisions are made explicitly by its logic. It is no accident that after the lockdowns were declared, our universal shorthand for returning American life to normal was “Reopen the economy.” We didn’t say “Let us live free,” or demand the reopening of civil society. Debate was waged in economic terms and leisure was deemed “inessential.” This gave Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, authority to prohibit Michiganders from buying gardening supplies and fishing equipment—instruments of leisure.
“The world of work is becoming our entire world,” warned Josef Pieper in 1947. We might imagine Pieper in a flat in West Berlin, looking down into Soviet-occupied territory to the East as he wrote these words, fearing for the spread of the totalitarian “world of work”—the socialist world—and seething at its tightening grip upon millions of German people.
But in fact, Pieper was observing the effects of the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of the West. From within liberal capitalism, he saw emerging a totalitarian spirit that threatened to remake everything in the name of work. Pieper feared that underneath the urgency to set the West on new, Americanized foundations was hidden a “changing conception of the nature of man, a new and changing conception of the very meaning of human existence—that is what comes to light in the modern notion of ‘work’ and ‘worker.’”
In his essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” Pieper defends human beings as creatures who embrace activities higher and broader than mere toil. Man, Pieper says, is made for silence, rest, and leisure, “and that means he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function.” It would narrow him beyond his nature and dehumanize him.
By “leisure” Pieper means the spirit in which a man receives life and the things of life as a gift. The modern worker fit to the “world of work” cannot do this, Pieper suggests, because he has been conditioned to know only production and consumption, and the activities of making and acquiring are opposed to the spirit of receiving something whole and entire and delighting in it for its own sake. As Pieper says, in leisure a man “looks and he affirms: it is good.” Leisure allows him to grasp “the world as a whole” and to see his own place in it, of which his status as worker is only a small part.
But surely not every instance of leisure, however enjoyable, is sufficient to achieve this state of being. Pieper, a Catholic, knows only one activity capable of broadening the mind, soul, and heart to their uttermost reaches—the worship of God:
Sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility; it is in fact absolutely antithetical to utility.
It is antithetical also to coercion and calculation. No boss, not even a priest, can wrest it out of someone. It is offered voluntarily. In worship man is entirely free, because however poor he may be materially, he gives out of the inner deposit and interior riches of his spirit.
The world of free men is in a silent struggle with the “workaday world,” which in its designs to reduce men to pure utility cannot permit the world of worship to endure. In the end, one will be victor. Either work will supplant all, or it will be kept in its place by the world of free men.
To date, Pieper’s warning has gone unheeded. Or perhaps he has simply lost the contest. Consider the subtle but important shift in how we understand the days of the week and their relation to labor. The Oxford English Dictionary finds that the term “weekend” was rare before the twentieth century. Not too long ago, Sunday started the week. In this old arrangement, toil began and ended in a time of rest ordered to worship. The principle was that we were made for immaterial, even heavenly, purposes—love of neighbor, love of family, and love of God—and our labor was offered in service of them.
Today, Sunday is just the worst day of the “weekend,” being too close to Monday, the start of the real week, the work week. It is during the work week that our social value is assigned by the kind of job we do and how much money we make. Under the work week, Sunday is meant for material pleasure, blowing off some steam, and recharging for Monday.
In “More Work, Fewer Babies,” a recent report by the Institute for Family Studies, where I am executive director, scholars Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone show that “workism”—the adoption of professional work as one’s highest value—is strongly associated with fertility decline at both the individual and the national level.
Using the World Values Survey, which surveyed 127,358 respondents in seventy-nine countries from 2017 to 2020, DeRose and Stone show that women who say they value work over family have fewer children than those who say they value family most and those who say they greatly value both family and work.
This is not surprising, but it is good to pinpoint the concrete effect. It is no secret that the world of labor has a tense relationship with the world of home. Feminists have been telling us as much for decades. It’s harder to explain why, as DeRose and Stone also found, those who had a strong attachment to work had still fewer children than respondents who said they didn’t care much for either work or family. Devotion to work, it turns out, is more effective in depressing fertility than is simple disregard for family.
These findings are replicated on the national level. Even among the Nordic countries, fertility has plummeted in recent years, as “workist” sentiments have surged. This trend defies conventional wisdom, which holds that the Nordics’ generous social welfare states help their citizens strike the right work-life balance, so that replacement-level fertility is not threatened by modern employment patterns. It’s simply not so.
A battery of policy ideas to help the American family are currently being considered on Capitol Hill and by the Biden administration: universal free pre-K, paid leave to take care of children or loved ones, an expanded child tax credit. The family needs our help, but we must be careful not to help it extinguish itself by tying it tightly to the labor market as a solution for its problems.
This is especially the case with universal pre-K. This program proposes to relieve families of childcare costs, freeing both parents to enter the labor force. But survey after survey shows that universal pre-K is an elite preoccupation; almost no one else wants it. The average American family wants a parent in the home and financial help to raise its own children. To this end, an expansion of the child tax credit seems helpful—whereas universal pre-K would be the final victory of Pieper’s world of “total labor.” As DeRose and Stone put it, we need to “enable men to work less, rather than seek means for women to work more.”
In a video to promote his essay on workism, Thompson summarizes coldly, “We have essentially made our work our god.” Quite so. And this God of Work is ungenerous with its people, jealously keeping them from their friends, family, the pleasures of reading and poetry, and even—if you’re among the millions who work in the service industry—from Sunday service.
Whereas the old God commanded that we “be fruitful and multiply,” the new God demands that we become eunuchs for the Kingdom of Profit. May we be faithful to the old God, and may he bless our children unto a thousand generations.
Michael Toscano is executive director at the Institute for Family Studies.