In 1930, ninety-four years ago, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay detailing his expectations for the upcoming standard of living in the twenty-first century. He predicted that industrial progress would reduce our workload from 40 hours a week to 15.
As an economist, Keynes was excellent. But as a prophet, he was pathetic. Because for most workers, the average workweek has increased.
In 1980, the richest people (and the highest earners) worked the fewest hours. But something happened over the next several decades. By 2020, the longest average workweek belongs to the richest ten percent.
Historically, the rich worked the fewest hours for one simple reason: because they could afford to. And the poor always worked the most hours … so that they could make more money … so that they could eventually afford … to work fewer hours.
It defies all economic wisdom to have the wealthiest people work the most hours. So, our reasons for work must no longer be economic. We used to work to put food on the table, but Derek Thompson (a staff writer at The Atlantic) argues that something else drives our need to work today:
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new [religions]. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something.
And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.Derek Thompson, On Work: Money, Meaning, Identity
It’s Not Just Song-Singing
Keynes claimed that work was driven by the need for a roof and a longing for a cruise. A hundred years later, Thompson says work is about worship. He claims we modern people now have a wide pantheon of gods, just like the ancient Greeks. (They’re probably the same gods.)
If Thompson is right (and I think he is), then we have to examine the real meaning of “worship.”
Real worship is not merely the song-singing of a church service. (Not even when we sing, “We worship You.”) The essence of worship has always been what we do with the other 167 hours of the week. We all worship, and we worship all the time. (Sometimes even during church.)
It’s why workaholics work nights and weekends. They don’t do it for money but to express devotion. They even offer sacrifices to their callings. Just ask their spouses and kids. Work is their salvation from insignificance. Work is their worship.
But other “believers” find salvation in parenting, being likeable, being legendary, or even being religious. When the famous tennis player Chris Evert retired, she said,
I had no idea of who I was or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by being a tennis champion.
I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on drug. I needed the wins. I needed the applause.
Her religion was tennis, and she worshiped the fame of winning.
Our Real Worship Is Hidden
The rituals of worship have always been kind of strange: the ancient rites of animal sacrifices (and the modern rites of song-fests) can be skin-deep-only practices that have nothing to do with our deepest devotion. Because we worship whatever our hearts ascribe ultimate value to.
- If our deepest desire is a good name, we will work hard, or spend time with our kids, or walk little old ladies across the street. As long as our name is highly esteemed.
- If our ultimate value is to feel good, we will pursue romance, or make lots of money, or drop out of work altogether. We might even sing worship songs. All for the feelings these activities bestow.
We worship what our heart most cherishes; and all the affections of our heart—from our self-proclaimed identities to our grasping for good feelings—will violently fixate on that object of worship.
Our real religion is where our mind wanders as we wait for the cashier at Walmart.