Because your work won’t love you back.
On a Venn Diagram, lying at the intersection of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps,” “poor people are just lazy,” and a deeply un-self-aware “your work will set you free,” lies the fervent belief that a respectable person’s life—or at least a respectable man‘s life—revolves around his career. Workism: you are your work, and your work is you.
I’d like to say that the idea that your life should revolve around your career has always rankled, but it hasn’t, at least not consciously. Until a few years ago, I was still holding onto the thin shred of hope that I might someday be an English professor—positively delusional thinking, given that I’d been in grad school for eight years and therefore knew all too well that I wasn’t ever going to choose to put up with the kind of abuse that the academic industry requires its acolytes to stomach in the pursuit of the ghost of its former ideals.
At least I have that refusal to defend me. Pursuing a career in academia—at least in the humanities, I make no claims about the sciences—requires one to pick up at least one of a handful of things that should really be looked at by a therapist, chief of which is the belief that your life should be centered around and dictated by your commitment to The Academy. At least I can say, in my defense, that the very idea of that chafed from day one.
Because it’s not true. Your work isn’t your life, it doesn’t define it, and it shouldn’t.
There’s a pervasive idea in America that work gives life meaning. That people need work in order to give their life meaning. That if you aren’t working, you’re not living a meaningful life.
And it’s utter nonsense.
To accept that work is necessary for a life to have meaning is to devalue a broad spectrum of life. Is a child’s life not valuable? Is the life of a retired person suddenly forfeit? Are disabled people unable to work by definition unable to live meaningful lives? Of course not, and it would be absurd to claim as much.
And yet the myth persists. I mean, my god, look at this video on “the dignity of work,” in which Pete Buttigieg says the following:`
“The dignity of work is the sense of purpose that comes from work, that comes from a job. Not just the knowledge that you can provide for yourself or your family, but where you fit in to an economy, to a community, based on what you do.”
The things this perspective implies are monstrous: that without work, you can’t have dignity or a sense of purpose; that without the ability to “provide for” (i.e. pay to support, in dollars) yourself or your family, you don’t have dignity; that you are somehow unable to fully take part in your community if you do not receive paid remuneration for your activities.
You and everyone else you know need to unlearn this.
If you’re defining your life by the work you do, then I am asking you, here and now, to aim higher.
It’s not just that workism devalues lives; it also materially harms them. When you spiritually align yourself and your community with paid work, you end up with a society where things that should be considered rights are contingent on and based around work. This is what we have in America today: Access to healthcare? You get that through work. The ability to live in retirement? Through work. The ability to live if you’re injured or disabled? Well god help you, you’d better be poor if you’re not working—and if you try to work to supplement it, we’ll cut you off.
Imagine instead a world where we treat human life as inherently valuable, regardless of the contribution it can make to the economy. Imagine a country where you have a right to health, happiness, and retirement, regardless of your economic value. It isn’t hard to do: many other countries—less wealthy than America, I might add—are able to guarantee these things.
But we’ll never get there so long as so many people subscribe to workism.
Your life is not your job.
Your value is not your paycheck.
Your rights are not contingent on your contribution to the economy.
You have inherent dignity and worth.
Get a job to pay the bills, not because you’re less of a person without one. Get a job you enjoy because it makes paying the bills less unpleasant. Get a career if you choose to dedicate your life to it because you want to.
But remember that even if you couldn’t work, or if the work you do isn’t paid—work like taking care of a sick parent, raising a family, volunteering for your community—you would still have value.
You’re better—and so much more valuable—than your work.