Can A Paycheck Bring Purpose? On Workism

Can A Paycheck Bring Purpose? On Workism March 5, 2019

By Geoff Holsclaw, theology professor at Northern Seminary & a local church pastor. Pick up his FREE “Refocusing Faith” E-course.

Growing up, workaholism was a vice to avoid (at least, in theory). But now, workism has become its own religion of sorts—promising “identity, transcendence, and community.”

This is the thesis of Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. Amid the decline of traditional faith in America (a claim I find dubious), Thompson suggests workism is an upstart religion clamoring for congregants. And America is fertile ground for its growth (a claim I agree with).

The Gospel of Work

Workism “is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose” (emphasis added).

This is a particularly nefarious turn of events because it makes work an end in itself, rather than a means.  Before the Industrial Revolution, work was necessary as a means of survival.  No complaining. No compromising. Just do the work so the family, tribe, or community, could survive.  After the Industrial Revolution, work was the means for purchasing leisure time—time with family, hobbies, or other interests.  BUT NOW, work itself is the reward, it is the plan and the purpose.

Thompson points out that while we—and he is talking about the American “we” where workism claims the most adherents—we have more wealth than ever before, but we are still working more than ever before.  Indeed, “The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.”

From Paycheck, to Purpose, to Depression

While the seeds of workism were planted by the Boomers and Gen X, it is the Millenials that have flourished (or whithered) most under it.  Workism creates the idea that the meaning of life should be found in our work, in our offices, at our desks, and on our phones.

The only problem is the besides the select few who somehow find the perfect job, expecting our paychecks provide purpose creates the ultimate mismatch between expectations and reality.  Millennials have it especially bad as the 1) generation groomed as the perfect self-optimizers and overachievers, and 2) as the generation fully and persistently exposed to social media (where everyone attempts to showcase their perfect careers).

No wonder depression and anxiety have soured when all our identity and meaning is supposed to come through our work, and yet hardly ever materializes.  No wonder recent college graduates—burdened with large debts—feel crushed under the demands of “adulting.”

Work promises us the world, but only gives more of itself.

As Thompson notes, “There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck. Indeed, if you were designing a Black Mirror labor force that encouraged overwork without higher wages, what might you do? Perhaps you’d persuade educated young people that income comes second; that no job is just a job; and that the only real reward from work is the ineffable glow of purpose.”

Work in the Kingdom

Of course there is nothing wrong in the desire for belonging, purpose, and identity.  The problem is how and where we find them.

All who follow Jesus, the Son of God, are adopted into the family of the Father through the Spirit (we belong).  And as children of the Father we have a share in the Father’s work in the world (we can bless). Our identity and purpose are in and through the Kingdom of God.  And this is principally done by cultivating the Kingdom culture of the Church.

Over the last 50 years there has flourished a theology of work (growing out of the Reformation’s critique of the laity as second-class kingdom workers).  This theology of work positions our careers as part of our callings, and our vocation as part of God’s vision for the world.  It reminds us that in “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17), and “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

There are many upshots to deepening our theology of work. But we must be wary of accidentally accommodating the new religion of workism, giving a new mutation to the Protestant work ethic amid the Spirit of Capitalism.

Work, identity, and purpose are often best pursued obliquely through obedience and faithfulness.  Joy and happiness are best sought indirectly through other means—and usually through relationships and community.

So, if you can find deep, Kingdom relationships and community in your work, then consider yourself blessed.  But if not, then prioritize Kingdom community—and then find a job that pays the bill. Don’t clime the corporate ladder just to find yourself in a communal hole.

As revivalist John Wesley said, “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”


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  • There’s a lot of this that seems to run counter to the ideas Michael Kruse has been discussing in his series. The sacred/secular split is present in many places in this article.

    While there is a danger is defining someone’s purpose and fulfillment -solely- in terms of their work, it’s just as dangerous to cordon it off as something we need to do to survive so we can get on with the -real- work of the Kingdom.

  • JohnWRS

    Work is honorable. Providing service or creating value for another person in the marketplace is honorable. Honorable people working in honorable service have always gained a degree of satisfaction from it.

    The idea that all this is all new since the Industrial Revolution or new to the Millennial Generation is ahistorical.

    Depending on work for Identity and Purpose are not new, but they remain a profound problem that many folks do not recognize until they leave their professions in their 60’s or so.

    Having one’s Identity in Christ and Purpose in discipleship and disciple-making is the antidote. We can take our Identity in Christ to work, and we can practice our discipleship in the marketplace. Disciple-making may need to occur on the margins of secular society – check the company policy manual – but it is relevant throughout our working years as well.

  • DDRLSGC

    Work is not honorable when the boss treats you like dirt, puts you in dangerous working conditions, gives you lousy pay and then cheats you out of your pathetic wage, tries to make you do overtime for no pay, and throws you away when he/she doesn’t need you anymore.

  • JohnWRS

    Are you enslaved?

    Can you seek other employment?

  • JohnWRS

    Never mind. I’ve looked at some of your other posts and understand where you’re coming from.

    Be well.

    Be happy.

  • DDRLSGC

    If you have not been following the country for the last 38 years, companies make you sign agreements not to work for their competitors, they make unwritten agreements not to poach each other workforce in order to keep wages down, bust up unions and fight against unionization, downsize and merging of companies, sending jobs overseas, and bringing foreign labor (legal and illegal) into the USA, it is impossible to get a new job with the same pay as in your last job.