Work Is the New God

Narrator: Elle Mills always wanted to be a YouTuber. After high school she got to work, posting videos nonstop. She even came out in one. Elle Mills: Hi, I’m Elle Mills, and I’m bisexual. Imagine if Ferris Bueller had a YouTube channel. Narrator: Millions of people tuned in. Do you guys know who Elle Mills is? Elle Mills! Have you discovered Elle Mills yet? She made her passion into a career. Work became her whole identity. And then one day she posted this. Elle Mills: This is all I ever wanted and why the fuck am I so un-fucking-unhappy? Narrator: Elle’s story raises an important question. Should a job provide a paycheck? Or a purpose? Derek: This idea of bragging to people I had an all-nighter last night. We are essentially the workaholics of the world. Narrator: This is Derek. He’s a self professed workaholic. And he recently wrote about why work is making us miserable. There’s a psychology behind it. He calls it workism. Derek: Workism is the idea that work is the centerpiece of our identity, the focal point of our lives and really the organizing principle of society. A lot of people have essentially turned to work to find the very things that they used to seek from traditional religions; transcendence, meaning community, self-actualization, a totalizing purpose in life. And so I think that in many ways, we have essentially made our work our God. Narrator: Workism was pioneered by the rich. It started with college educated elites who were raised to turn their passions into careers. Derek: In the last 35-40 years, what you’ve seen is that the rich are choosing to work more, and that is a really ahistorical shift. For the vast majority of history. The rich have always worked less. Narrator: Now it’s not just the rich who are working more. It’s everyone. Derek: You see it trickling down not only in the workplace but also in social media with hashtag hustle culture. There’s this bombardment of other people’s successes, so that you’re constantly aware that other people have more status than you. And this I think, is a kind of poison. Elle Mills: So I started uploading consistently because I knew that for every video I posted, I gained subscribers. That is how I gained an audience. Once the numbers started growing faster and faster. I’m like, Okay, I need to keep this up for that to continue, or else if I stop, it will stop. It was not sustainable. Narrator: This obsession with being constantly plugged in and looking for meaning from a job is relatively recent. Derek: 150 years ago, Americans tended to work on farms. I did what my father did what my grandfather did what my great-grandfather did. Narrator: A job was just a job. The idea of career advancement didn’t exist yet. Then in the late 20th century, an explosion of big business changed the game. Derek: You had finance take off you’ve had the beginning of the tech culture. With the invention of bureaucracies and multi-part companies we invented that which we now call a career. This sort of narrative arc toward a series of acronyms, you know, CEO, CFO, CMO. That is a very modern invention. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve evolved from jobs to careers to callings. Narrator: You can actually hear this gospel being preached to the next generation. The single most common piece of career advice and commencement speeches is “Follow your passion!” “Love what you do!” “Take a chance on doing what you love!” But most of the available jobs in the economy are not designed to stoke passion. Derek: A lot of jobs suck. They’re designed to sell stuff to people and make money for their bosses. Narrator: And this is where the central problem lies. Derek: I think at the end, we’re being sold a false American dream. We’re being sold a vision of how life works out for a minuscule few of Americans and telling all Americans that this is what they should pursue. And it’s setting ourselves up for the anxiety and the frustration and the worries and the spiritual and psychological burnout that so many of us are feeling. Narrator: Most full time employees report feeling burnt out on the job. And the WHO recently decided that burnout can now be diagnosed as a medical condition. So if workism is leading to this epidemic, what would it take to change the mentality? Derek: I don’t think anyone has ever been able to provide a clear and final answer to the question. “How do I balance my life between love and work and family and friends?” But here are two answers. The top down solution is we should change public policy. We should make it easier for people to work less while still making a living wage. But there’s also bottom-up solutions. Therapy, Buddha, existentialism. Elle Mills: From my experience, I’ve been learning to create boundaries for myself to protect my mental health my career, and privacy. Derek: The work of detaching ourselves and detaching our identities from what it is that we do is the sort of experience that everyone sort of has to figure out on their own. Hey, thanks for watching. This is the pilot episode of a new series at The Atlantic where writers like me talk about topics that fascinate us. If you liked what you heard, and you’re not sick of hearing me talk, please subscribe to my tech podcast with the Atlantic Crazy/Genius.


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