The future of work is still work

There has been a lot of talk lately about the end of work as we know it. In this third year of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are exhausted, quitting their jobs in record numbers and reconsidering the place of work in their lives. Experts say the “Great Resignation” signals a new era: the end of ambition, the rise of anti-work sentiment, and the possibility that we are entering a time when a job could be just a job. But I doubt any of this will change the collective American worship of work. What these conversations fail to take into account is the invisible religion of work that has become an unassailable part of our culture. At a time when religious affiliation rates are at their lowest in 73 years, we worship work – that is, we sacrifice and submit to it – because it gives us identity, belonging and meaning, not to mention that it puts food on our tables. If the American labor theocracy is to be dismantled, it will not be done simply by changing jobs or changing attitudes. This will require a fundamental transformation of the social system that dictates the institutions from which we thrive.

Contrary to the new wisdom, work Is love us back. This is what I found while researching my new book, Work Pray Code, a study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley tech companies, which are sometimes seen as role models for American work culture. Although professionals benefit in many ways from our jobs, many of us talk about work as extractive: We say we sell our souls at work; we describe it as draining. But in Silicon Valley, work is where a lot of people to find their souls. Over the course of five years, I’ve interviewed over 100 tech industry professionals who echoed that sentiment. A young engineer, a former evangelical Christian who moved from Georgia to join a San Francisco startup, told me he transferred his fervor for religion to work. His business became his new religious community, providing him with the belonging, meaning and mission he had once found in his church at home. In the camaraderie of his start-up, he developed the belief that their enterprise social networking app would “change the world”. The engineer was one of many people who described themselves as becoming more “whole,” “spiritual,” or “connected” through work.

It is not a coincidence. Professionals have spent more time at work in recent decades. At the same time, many of them also withdrew from religious observance, civic organizations and community groups, according to political scientist Robert D. Putnam. Religious affiliation, in particular, is significantly lower in knowledge-industry hubs such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. Today, many tech companies have taken on spiritual care in order to make their workers more productive. Companies design the work experience so that their employees can “be that happy person,” as one HR professional told me. Another HR professional told me that the job of a “great HR” is to “feed people’s souls when they’re working so hard.” That’s why places like Google and Salesforce, for example, use Buddhist teachers and have dedicated meditation rooms to give employees the time and space to connect with their authentic selves. They provide their senior executives with executive coaches that one manager described to me as “spiritual advisors.” All of these offerings help tech workers align the deepest parts of themselves with their work.

But these perks aren’t offered with the goal of improving employees for themselves, and many tech companies have been criticized for prioritizing productivity and profit over the well-being of their workers. Yet today’s businesses are realizing the benefit of meeting the spiritual needs of their busy employees, and providing these services gives them a competitive edge. For example, it paid off when a start-up invested in one of its talented young engineers by paying for him to attend a mindfulness meditation program and spiritual retreat and work with an executive coach. The young engineer, now bolstered by a work-oriented sense of mission and purpose, quickly became chief engineer, the company’s CEO told me. Work has become more fulfilling for him and the company has benefited from its growth.

Certainly, the tech workers in my study are an extreme example of workplace fulfillment in America. The jobs of many Americans, especially those without a college degree, have been offshored and automated. For them, as for so many gig workers today, work has fewer benefits and has become less available, less secure and less meaningful. And yet, in their attitude to work, many Americans are not so different from tech workers. According to a recent McKinsey poll, 70% of professionals said their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Most Americans say they have made close friends at work. And many professionals describe good work with words like call, missionand goal— terms formerly reserved for religion. The majority of companies do not offer consultations with Buddhist monks, but even mainstream companies such as Aetna and General Mills have brought spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness into the office. Companies are gradually positioning themselves as our new houses of worship, nurturing people with a gospel of divine purpose in the workplace. Silicon Valley is not an outlier but a harbinger for American professionals.

Even for those of us who have started looking elsewhere for fulfillment by starting a new hobby, taking a sabbatical, or getting a better, more meaningful job, all of these solutions leave the theocracy of work untouched. These individual actions change nothing in a system that concentrates all its material, social and spiritual rewards in the institution of work. The only way to reorient is to revitalize and build shared “places of worship” outside of work, changing the structures that organize our fulfilment. These places of worship should claim our time, energy and devotion as work does. One would have to sacrifice oneself and submit to their demands, as one does for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive work. These places of worship should not be solely religious; it can also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, book groups or political clubs – anything that is part of the panoply of civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that goes beyond the bottom line of a company.

David Foster Wallace wrote: “In the daily trenches of adult life, atheism does not exist… Everyone worships. The only choice we have is what to worship. As pandemic restrictions ease, we are returning to our offices, schools and town halls. This moment invites us to choose again what we will worship, who we will belong to, and what we will fill with meaning. The question is collective: what are we going to sanctify? If we don’t ask, and if we don’t change, we will only continue to walk a well-worn path that will leave us with the job as the last significant institution standing.