Workism: America’s New Religion?

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“From jobs to careers to callings.”

That’s what Derek Thompson says is the history of work in six words. In an excerpt from his new book, published in The Atlantic, Thompson argues that career has replaced religion as the primary source of identity and meaning in America.

“As the managerial revolution created a sense of professional progress, the decline of organized religion and social integration in the 20th century left many Americans bereft of any sense of spiritual progress. For some, work rose to fill the void. Many highly educated workers in the white-collar economy feel that their job cannot be ‘just a job’ and that their career cannot be ‘just a career’: Their job must be their calling.

He calls this new religion “workism.”

It is rooted in the belief that work can provide everything we have historically expected from organized religion: community, meaning, self-actualization. And it is characterized by the irony that, in a time of declining trust in so many institutions, we expect more than ever from the companies that employ us—and that, in an age of declining community attachments, the workplace has, for many, become the last community standing. This might be why more companies today feel obligated to serve on the front lines in political debates and culture-war battles.

He also predicts how the rise of AI and remote work will continue to put more weight on the flimsy foundation of workism as meaning-maker. 

“If community means ‘where you keep showing up,’ then, for many people, the office is all that’s left. What happens when it goes the way of bowling leagues and weekly church attendance?”

There’s so much I want to say about this article. But I’ll limit myself to just a couple of affirmations and one critique.

While I enjoyed the article and agree with many of Thompson’s arguments, I think it’s worth noting that it’s not historically accurate to say that viewing work as a calling is a symptom of the managerial revolution. Luther’s development of the doctrine of vocation (or calling) came long before that.

I worry also that some Christians might be tempted to see the truth in Thompson’s argument that Americans tend to idolize their careers, but then may go on to errantly conclude that God has not designed work to be meaningful. 

It may be true that many unbelievers and immature believers are putting too much emphasis on finding intrinsic meaning in the career itself. But in my experience, mature Christians tend to actually have the opposite problem. 

As Derek J. Brown, writing on Luther’s doctrine of vocation notes, for most mature believers the temptation is less to idolize work and more to undervalue it as a legitimate outworking of their Christian life. Many believers view their careers as a necessary burden that gets in the way of the truly “spiritual” activities that really matter.

Work certainly must not replace religion as our source of identity and meaning. But a biblical perspective on vocation should imbue your work with meaning, not erase it. The difference is that the secular person seeks to discover meaning in the career itself. But the Christian brings meaning to the career because they view their job through the lens of God’s plan for the ages.

God designed mankind for work from the beginning (Gen. 2:15). Your job is not meaningless toil. It is the strategic outpost in which the Lord has providentially placed you to bear fruit that serves others and glorifies Him.

It is true that for those who replace religion with career the result will be disappointment and disillusionment. But for Christians who work as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23) even the most menial job can become meaningful. And that is God’s design for work.

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