By CAROLYN CHEN
Plenty of writers have argued in recent years that work has become a false idol, with the office, not church, the place where many Americans now seek out meaning and purpose. As a sociologist of religion, I think these writers are right: Work is replacing — and in some cases, even taking the form of — religion among many of America’s professionals. Between 2013 and 2018, I conducted over a hundred interviews for my book “Work Pray Code.” Most of them were with tech workers based in Silicon Valley, people who told me over and over that their careers are “spiritual journeys” and their work a “calling.” Many said they had become more spiritual, whole and connected after working in tech. Their workplaces were communities where they found belonging, meaning and purpose.
But as I discovered during my research, the gospel of work is thin gruel, an ethically empty solution to meet our essential need for belonging and meaning. And it is starving us as individuals and communities. Consider the “conversion” experience of an engineer I’ll call John, a once-fervent evangelical Christian who moved from Georgia to San Francisco to join a start-up. (I use pseudonyms for all people and companies to comply with my universities’ institutional review board policies.) At each stage in John’s life before his arrival at the start-up, religion gave him a sense of belonging, meaning and direction and a framework for thinking hard about moral and ethical values. After he graduated from college, his 9-to-5 job as a programmer at a bank left him time and energy to stay active in his church. He played guitar in the church band, participated in Bible studies and volunteered with the church. His faith community, John said, “built character” and showed him “how to love people in different ways.” But all that stopped once he joined a tech start-up I’ll call Harmonize in San Francisco. A 70hour workweek left him little time to join a church or engage with any community outside of work. His co-workers became his closest friends. He ate nearly all his meals at work. It seemed to me that the inspirational rush he’d experienced at Sunday services now came from the weekly all-hands company meeting. Work gave John not only a new identity but also a new purpose in life and a different set of values. Instead of embracing the Christian mission to change the world by spreading the Gospel, John embraced the company mission: to “change the world” with its app. This is the same language Christian missionaries use — but with none of the moral and ethical reflecting that John had done with his Christian faith community.
I learned later that John’s piety paid off. His company got acquired, and he’s now pursuing his calling in a new start-up. John was one of many people I interviewed who left their religious faiths after working in Silicon Valley. But what I observed in my research went beyond just the personal inclination of people like John to worship work. I saw a social ecosystem where workplaces have taken on the institutional functions of religion, fulfilling employees’ social and spiritual needs for identity, belonging, meaning, purpose and transcendence.
Harmonize held regular meditation sessions that included readings from a spiritual text. And in place of a pastor, John had an executive coach hired by the company, who taught him prayerful practices of breathing, meditation, visualisation and reflection, which he said helped him connect with his “authentic self” and manifest it through his work. Perhaps this lifestyle’s appeal is why many of the tech workers I interviewed clung to their faith in work despite the mounting scrutiny and criticism of their industry in recent years. But both tech workers themselves and society as a whole pay a price when work takes the place of religion.
Consider what happened to an entrepreneur I’ll call Taylor, who quickly soared up the ranks in her company. Like many of the others I spoke to, she also poured herself into her company by working 70 to 80 hours a week, eating all her meals at work and limiting her social circle to co-workers, until her entire life orbited around the company. Like John, Taylor had faith that her devotion would be rewarded by a highly anticipated corporate acquisition, when the company’s value would be precisely realised.
But when the acquisition fell through, it “broke my heart,” she said. “I couldn’t do it anymore, and so I left.” She spiralled into a yearlong existential crisis that she described as a “death of self.” Taylor depended on work so fully for her identity and meaning that after she left her job, she didn’t know who she was anymore.
“Who am I? What do I value?” she asked herself. “I didn’t even know these things because I gave everything to work.” With her sense of self so long tethered to her company’s performance, the failed acquisition revealed to her the poverty of a worldview that reduces values to mere dollars and cents.
Worshipping work costs the rest of us, too. Today the theocracy of work increasingly governs life in other knowledge-industry hubs across America like Seattle, New York and Cambridge, Mass. It is hollowing out our faith communities and civic associations — the places where diverse groups of people hash out hard questions of moral value, the very questions that Taylor was so hungry to engage with.
Across different faith traditions, clergy members in Silicon Valley say that their congregations are dwindling because people are too busy working. A few decades ago, a pastor told me, the typical member attended Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today that member attends only Sunday service once a month, he said. And he is scraping for volunteers as never before.
Worshipping work is also weakening our democracy, as well-paid professionals — historically among the most politically engaged demographics in America — check out politically. Silicon Valley politicians I talked to lamented the political apathy of busy rank-and-file tech workers who live in a bubble. (The Musks and Thiels are a different story.) “They don’t get involved,” a public official told me. “They don’t vote. They don’t know their local representatives.”
But not everyone gets pulled into the religion of work. As I conducted my research, I discovered that certain groups of people are less likely to worship work — including older tech workers and devoutly religious tech workers of all ages. Whether it is at a local Buddhist temple, a church or a political association, these tech workers belong to communities outside work that lay claim to their time, energy and devotion. Tech workers who are religious stand out even more from the work-worshiping mainstream. Their religions give them a solid foundation to build a sense of self, community, spirituality and purpose apart from work. And their religious communities are often more diverse, both racially and socio-economically, than the ones they find at work.
If we don’t want a country where people worship work, we must protect and strengthen our unions, our neighbourhoods, our political groups and our mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. These civic institutions are the building blocks to creating a society where there can be more to life than work.
Chen is an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley