When we talk about work culture, we’re often talking about company culture, or “what it is like to work here.”
In these conversations we might discuss things like, how is conflict dealt with, what behaviors are rewarded, what is the office layout like, and are there snacks?
Oh wow, ping pong table!
Learning about, thinking about, and talking about Company Culture is one of my great obsessions. But, as much as I’d like to talk about that, today I’d like to discuss a different aspect of work culture.
Specifically our culture, of work.
Note for readers: I’m going to be talking about work from the vantage point of someone who lives in an American living in a city, in the Northeastern part of the United States.
Before we get started…
I’d like you to reflect on what work means to you.
How does work make you feel? Why do you work? How does work fit into the overall scope of your life? What meaning do you place on your work? How do you see your work as a representation of you? How do you see your work in the context of the world? If money were no object, would you still work, and if so, would you be doing the same thing?
How do you feel about the general culture of work in our country, in your state, at your company? Do we collectively work too much? Do we not work enough? Are the positive benefits and compensation of work equitably distributed?
OK, thanks for engaging in that brief self-reflection.
Now close your eyes…it’s time for the American Dream.
This is America
I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers …
Ronald Reagan, “A Vision for America”
America is said to be “The Land Of Opportunity.” The American Dream is the idea that: equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.1 The idea is wonderful in principle but I don’t want to get into the myriad of ways in which this dream is not really offered to everyone equitably…because that could be an entire post on its own.
Instead, let’s just move right into the various ways this propaganda impacts our culture and affects our physical, emotional and mental health.
Work Is Virtue
The idea that work, in and of itself, is a virtuous thing that has a long history in America with a heavy influence from our Puritanical roots.2 Many of those who advocated for seeing work itself as a virtue, seemingly did so honestly and honorably.
It has also been argued, and I think is quite reasonable to see the point, that spreading this idea is a convenient way for those with more wealth and ownership to supplement workers salaries and benefits in order to keep them working–for the sake of working–rather than advocating for their own improved conditions.
I share this solely for the purpose of explaining where the “American work ethic” likely sprang into existence. I’m not demonizing work and I’m not saying that hard work is not a virtue. I’m attempting to answer the question of why we see it that way.
Success is a function of work
Because the American Dream mantra is repeated ad nauseam, we’ve collectively taken to talking about it as if it’s an objective truth. The natural progression of this idea leads to the logical conclusion that if you’re not succeeding, it’s got to be the result of your own lack of gumption.
“Get a job!” or maybe “Stop being so lazy!”
The narrative is: it’s not the system, it’s you! It’s more common to believe we’re on the verge of becoming a billionaire if we work hard enough, rather than becoming bankrupt regardless of how much we work. Despite the reality being the opposite. We’ve collectively internalized the American Dream so much that in the event that we’re not “making it,” we can’t help but wonder what we’re doing wrong. If other people have managed to succeed (see Instagram) then why can’t you?
Hard work, grit, determination, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (technically impossible) are all perceived aspects and overused buzzwords of our American culture. In the internet age, we’ve taken it a step further and added: “hustle-culture” and “the grind” which is used in a non-pejorative and hilariously ironic aspirational way. In an “always-on” world, “side hustles” can be built at night, you know, since you work during the day.
Listen even more closely, particularly among the cult of hustle, and you’ll hear that collectively we’ve started to frown upon anything or anyone that doesn’t generate wealth. The measure of a person is the measure of their wealth. The impact of this, when combined with stagnating wages and inflation, means that your struggle to get by might be getting a lot harder.
So, our “free time” begins to feel like the time we should be working. Hobbies are not something we have time for anymore, there are student loan payments to make, mortgages to cover, and medical bills that are overdue.
But, you convince yourself that your credit card bill is probably only one side hustle away…if you can just manage to buckle down and sacrifice your nights and weekends.
And despite being told all of the things you need to buy in order to make your life complete, we haven’t even started looking at your shameful purchasing decisions yet.
Another vanilla latte?! Good luck with retirement buddy!
Avocado toast?! No wonder you can’t buy a house.
The American Dream does not, in fact, come with coffee or breakfast included.
So, now the real questions…
This post is not a full-on frontal attack against work or capitalism. It’s simply a critical examination of the culture around that work. It’s a call to ask the question WHY, loud and clear.
- Why do we work?
- How is this serving us?
- What do we want to get out of work?
Our entire culture revolves around work, and work is supposed to lead to wealth. Wealth, we presume, is supposed to lead to that all precious freedom we talk so much about. Yet, we’re at the pinnacle of wealth creation, and the spoils are tightly confined and homelessness and medical bankruptcy are, still, far too common. So again, what are we all working so hard for? Why are we giving up nights and weekends when the odds are so long? Who, does it really benefit?
Now, I’d like to offer some hope.
I think we can change our culture of work. It starts by understanding a few key things.
Your life is more than your work.
If you find yourself in the position where it feels as though your entire life revolves around work, ask yourself why? If you are curing cancer, that’s awesome. I applaud your efforts and wish you luck. But, I still think you’d find your life more rewarding if you made time for other things. You are obviously free to work as hard as you want for whatever reason. Just make sure you are not neglecting to appreciate all this life has to offer just to clock more hours at work.
As far as we truly know, we only get this one life, and there’s so much more to enjoy and experience than what we do at work. Tend to your relationships, spend time with your friends and family, and take up a hobby that makes you burst with excitement.
You can do work that matters.
I’d going to break this into two distinct parts.
1. If you are just entering the workforce
If you are just starting out, I encourage you to read this post How to find your true love and die happy. The point I’ll give you is this: your career is a lot longer and more indirect than you think right now. It’s unlikely that you’ll do–and only do for your entire career–what you studied in school. You will have good jobs and bad jobs. You may work for others or work for yourself. But whatever the case, it’ll be a long and winding road, and I suggest at this early stage you plan intelligently for this journey.
Working in a job you hate is soul-crushing. Be willing to take your knocks earlier in your career. Quit bad jobs. Realize that getting fired isn’t the end fo the world, isn’t necessarily about YOU but potentially about your employer, and is often the start of something better. Be willing to pursue a career that makes you happy. I’m not talking high paying puppies and rainbows, easy-peasy role. I’m saying actual satisfaction knowing that the work you do matters to you based on your values as a human being.
And the reason you should take those risks early in your career is that it gets continually harder to change course the later in your career you go. It rarely gets impossible, but it gets a lot more difficult.
2. If you are already working but want to change
Job mobility is something that a free and wealthy society should allow for, and yet, it is extremely difficult for many people. Some people feel stuck in their jobs because, due to various financial responsibilities, they must maintain this income. This sucks and is quite frankly part of the problem as I see it. At some point, I’d like to write a post about ways to make that tough transition, but it’s a little long for today.
Instead, I’ll offer this:
Try to find a way to “work” outside of your job. Not to make that extra money you need right now, but to create an escape route or to give you the much-needed satisfaction you lack in the 9-5. Maybe that “work” is volunteering on weekends. Maybe it’s coaching a little league baseball team. Maybe it’s learning a new skill that could lead to new job opportunities. Whatever it is, make sure that additional “work” is work that really matters to you.
You have the power to affect change
If you’re working really hard and you’re barely getting by, look for ways to get involved in efforts for change.
- Is there a Union you can join to improve your ability to collectively bargain for improved working conditions and pay?
- Are there political candidates you can support who are strong advocates for the middle class and lower class? Are they advocating work worker rights?
- Can you call your Representatives in Congress?
- Is there a free or low-cost training that you can attend to give you the skills to move to a new position with better pay or benefits?
- Are you taking your vacation days, taking your sick days when you need them, or standing up for your right to have a weekend by shutting off your work email and declining calls?
Don’t let the accepted narrative be your narrative, by default
If you want to believe the American Dream and you want to believe that work in and of itself is a virtue, I cannot stop you and you are free to believe that. If you are questioning that narrative, good, it’s healthy to have a critical mind.
You don’t have to let the culture make you feel bad about enjoying your leisure time. You don’t have to judge your self worth by your net worth. You can be part of the force that changes this culture. Culture is what we collectively believe and accept, and it is subject to change.
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_ethic ↩
Also published on Medium.