The New Religion That's Driving Us Apart
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz penned an essay titled “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore.” The subtitle summary read, “Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.” The heart of her concern is how the “hours in which we work, rest and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.”
“Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Friday—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.”
Her concern is the loss of a “blueprint for a shared life.” Families, she maintains, pay the steepest price:
“Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.”
She even acknowledges its assault on what used to be the one, empty, “sacred” day of the week:
“I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.”
But is it simply our culture’s shifting schedule that is at hand? Hardly. Derek Thompson writes that our new busyness and schedule mania have become our new religious identity. Of the many new atheisms filling the void in the rise of the “nones”, nothing is looming as large as workism:
“What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Thompson notes that while it promises transcendence and community, it is failing to deliver. As, I might add, any type of atheism would.
But this new religion not only fails spiritually, but also relationally, undermining the very nature of social and family life. So as we reflect on answers, let’s be clear about the order of events: our schedules did not create workism, workism did.
Perhaps it’s time to bow down before another altar.
James Emery White
Judith Shulevitz, “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” The Atlantic, November 2019 issue, read online.
Derek Thompson, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable,” The Atlantic, February 24, 2019, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is available for preorder on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.