In 1930, legendary economist John Maynard Keyes wrote an essay about our future lifestyle in the twenty-first century. He predicted that industrial progress would reduce our workload to 15 hours a week. Keyes may have been a brilliant economist, but he was a pathetic prophet.
In fact, for many, the workweek over the last thirty years has increased. In 1980, the highest earners worked the fewest hours. But something happened in the following decades, and by 2005, the longest average workweek belonged to the richest ten percent.
Historically, the rich always worked fewer hours because they could afford it. And the poor always worked more hours, so that they could make more money, so that they could work fewer hours.
To have the wealthiest work the most hours defies all economic wisdom … unless our reasons for work changed. We used to work out of necessity, but Derek Thompson (a staff writer at The Atlantic) argues that something else now energizes our work hours:
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.
This article began with observations about our workweek, but what strikes me most is Thompson’s observation about worship. He claims modern people worship a variety of gods, just like the ancient Greeks. (I would argue they are the same gods with different names.) If this is true, then we must revise our understanding of the nature of worship.
Most people think worship is the first twenty minutes of a church service. But that thinking misses the heart of worship. Real worship is not merely singing songs; real worship—the motivation and actions of deep veneration—is what we do one hundred and sixty-eight hours a week. We all worship, and we worship all the time. The nature of worship-ritual is nonintuitive.
It’s why workaholics work extra-long hours. They find identity and hope in their careers. They even offer sacrifices to their callings (just ask their spouses and kids). It is in their work they feel they are most themselves. Work is their salvation from insignificance. Work is their worship.
But others find salvation in parenting, likeability, being religious, or being legendary. When the famous tennis player Chris Evert was about to retire, 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.
Where Is our Heart?
Real worship rites have always been non-traditional: the ancient rites of sacrifices and the modern song-fests can be skin-deep practices that have nothing to do with our deepest, daily adoration. Because we worship whatever we ascribe ultimate value to.
- If we most want a good name, we may work hard, or spend time with our kids, or walk little old ladies across the street. As long as our good name is held in high esteem.
- If our ultimate value is to feel good, we may pursue romance, or make lots of money, or drop out of work altogether. We might even sing worship songs. All for the euphoric feelings these activities give us.
We most value what our heart most cherishes; and all the affections of our heart—from its mountaintop joys to its undying desires—meditate on that object of worship we most revere.
Our real religion is what we obsess about as we wait for the cashier at Walmart.