On “workism” and American attitudes toward work

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook that I had managed to crank out a 30-page draft of an article, citing roughly 75 sources, in four days. Although I was happy with the draft when I submitted it for possible publication, upon rereading it I quickly saw its rough edges. Nevertheless, some of my Facebook pals gave me kudos for having hunkered down and completed the job, and I have to say that I was giving myself a pat on the back for having pulled it off.

But today I read this piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “Workism Is Making America Miserable” (link here) and I had to wonder if it was speaking to me:

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

…The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. 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.

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.

OK, so some might understandably say that “workism” is merely a repackaged way of saying workaholic. But Thompson is taking the latter notion a step further. He’s basically giving social class and (male) gendered angles to this deep, sometimes obsessive quest to work. He confesses that he is a “workist” whose personal identity “is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity,” yet he also realizes that this isn’t good for him or for society. In fact, he makes suggestions for public policy reform that combat workism. (He shares plenty of details in the full article, which I heartily recommend.)

I am very grateful for the work I get to do. In terms of my work as a professor, with the exception of grading exams (a necessary evil) and faculty meetings (ditto, sometimes minus “necessary”), it’s a wonderful job. Teaching, scholarship, and service — the troika that make up a professor’s core job duties — are very rewarding activities. But geez, I saw a lot of myself in that article. It’s not unusual for me to work seven days a week.

However, I break with the workism theme here: While Thompson says that workism has replaced faith for some, I don’t necessarily look at it that way. Although my religious beliefs are a work-in-progress — I believe in a God whose truth is somewhere in the intersection of the great faith traditions and various notions of spirituality — that hodgepodge of values helps to infuse my work with meaning. There are many others with much more defined religious beliefs who see their work as a personal ministry. And for those who see their work as an opportunity to create positive change, it’s not about making more money. 

That said, all work and no play can be an unhealthy recipe. I’m trying to do better on that elusive work-life balance thing. One of my hobbies is singing. For years I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center. I’ve also become a regular at a local karaoke studio. I love the Great American Songbook — Sinatra, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, and some of the classic singer-songwriters are among my favorites. In fact, I’ll be crooning a few tunes at karaoke this weekend.

Charles Hayes on unfinished business

My favorite Hayes book

Recently author and philosopher Charles D. Hayes shared these thoughts on his Facebook page:

Have you ever wondered what could, should, or might have been? Or, if perhaps, the best book ever written was not published, the best orator never made a speech, the best voice never sang, the best athlete never played sports, and so on down the road of life experience? I think it’s more likely than not, that all these examples are plausible.

And just as feasible, is the likelihood that the unfinished business of every person who dies unexpectedly could represent an aspirational loss, amounting to an existential deficit for the living, on par with books never published. Something to think about in keeping one’s affairs in order.

Charles is one of my favorite authors and thinkers, and in recent years we’ve become friends via Facebook. I’ve touted his writings on this blog many times. He often goes deep in his thinking and writing. This was one of his simpler “ponder this” thoughts that invites deeper contemplation.

The term unfinished business resonates strongly with me, as I’m sure it does with many folks of middle age and beyond. It becomes especially relevant when you realize that the clock is ticking, that you no longer have seemingly endless amounts of time to do what you’d like to do.

So what’s your unfinished business?

Are you sitting on a great idea for a book or collection of short stories? Maybe becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King is a long shot, but you could publish your work and build a neat little (or not so little) readership for your work.

Do you have dreams of running up and down the court as part of a championship basketball team? OK, you probably won’t be playing with or against LeBron James, but you just might find an adult hoops league that is right for your athletic aspirations.

Would you like to play the piano like this guy? Well, that might be a stretch — performers like the remarkable Jack Gibbons are rare — but perhaps a few piano lessons might reveal more talent at the keyboard than you ever imagined you possessed.

Yup, Charles’s words have once again given me an excuse to be a shameless hawker of avocations and hobbies, which I think can be among the joys and good havens of our lives. They can be gift to you and to others, and in some cases be positively life-changing.

Related posts

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry? (2018)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife (2010, rev. 2018)

 

Periodic reminder: Hobbies are good for us

The other day, a dear friend told me in a matter-of-fact way that I’m a workaholic. She’s right, I know, which may render me the wrong writer to extol the virtues of having an engaging hobby. Nevertheless, I’ve been doing so for many years on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here) and elsewhere.

Now comes a thought-provoking New York Times piece by Jaya Saxena, “The Case for Having a Hobby,” which explores our relationship with hobbies in a world where so many people feel pressured to be continually productive, and where so many others don’t have the luxury of time or resources to easily allow for a hobby. The article examines the impact of an achievement-oriented culture that undermines the pursuit of hobbies for pleasure. Ultimately, Saxena suggests doing “something you’re genuinely interested in and want to do just for the sake of doing it.”

Despite said workaholic tendencies, I’ve made conscious efforts to carve out time for hobbies. I thought I’d use this end-of-school-year juncture to once again share a few of my pastimes over the years:

A voice made for photographs?

For many years I’ve been taking a weekly voice class at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Here’s what I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago:

Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

…I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

…On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well.

…I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends.

Yeah, that’s a tornado dropping behind me

Since my boyhood days of growing up in northwest Indiana, I’ve been deeply fascinated by tornadoes. Ten years ago, I signed up for a storm chase tour hosted by Tempest Tours, a Texas-based company that takes its guests into bad weather throughout America’s heartland, led by expert storm chasers. In a remarkable stroke of lucky timing, within a few hours of leaving our base hotel in Oklahoma, we intercepted a single supercell that spawned multiple tornadoes throughout the day. It was an awe-inspiring experience, and I’ve gone on four more tours since then.

I’ve collected just about everything except heads

As a kid I was drawn to collecting. Stamps, coins, baseball cards, and more. Limited funds prevented me from accumulating too much stuff — a blessing for a pack rat like me, believe me — but I’ve still managed to hang on to some of my favorite collectibles. And although I don’t have time to collect stamps actively, I’m still drawn to their beauty and the historical stories they often tell. On occasion I’ll pick up an interesting stamp set or illustrated cover.

Replaying sports history with the APBA baseball simulation game

I’ve been a sports fan since boyhood days as well, and one manifestation of that fandom is playing and collecting tabletop sports simulation games that use statistics-based game models to recreate actual or imagined pro and college sports teams and play games with them. These are the analog precursors to popular sports video games like John Madden Football. Pictured above are player performance cards from one of the legendary tabletop baseball games, APBA Baseball. If you roll a 66 (6 on both 6-sided die), you’re almost guaranteed that the player hits a home run!

Heaven is time to read books

Of course, there are books. In my case, lots of them. Hundreds and hundreds. This, too, goes back to childhood, when books were both a joy and a refuge. I think the same could be said of them today.

***

Looking back at what I just wrote, I wonder how much our penchant for hobbies has roots in our younger days. In my case, every one of these hobbies can be traced to my childhood. Perhaps some enterprising graduate student has already written a thesis on the linkages between childhood fascinations and adult hobbies, but for now I’ll simply acknowledge the connection for me. In addition, I hope that readers will pursue or discover hobbies that give them an enjoyable respite from life’s immediate challenges.

A few revised posts for your consideration

Dear readers, during the past year I’ve revised, tweaked, and updated several popular earlier posts to this blog. I hope you’ll find them interesting and/or useful!

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (original: July 2013 ; revised: January 2017) — “Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later.”

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (original: December 2012; revised: March 2017) — “Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.”

When the bullying comes from a board member (original: August 2011; revised: November 2017) — “‘Board bullying,’ as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. . . . And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.”

What is academic tenure? (original: August 2011; revised: December 2016) — “Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive. In some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education.”

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (original: July 2010; revised: July 2017) — “For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when ‘heart, will, and mind are on the same page.’  They may involve ‘singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.’  In these moments, ‘what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.'”

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Periodically I use this blog to champion the pursuit of hobbies and avocations as ways of enriching our lives, and I’m happy to do so again. For a lot of folks right now, the experience of work and the state of the world generally are brimming with stressors. And while I don’t advocate ignoring those situations, I do think we need healthy diversions that offer positive engagement.

On this topic, I try to practice what I preach. I’ve written before (here and on my personal blog here) about a weekly singing class that I take at the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE). Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

Recently I was reminded of the meaning of this class by Peter, a fellow student, who dutifully jots down coaching tips and reflections into a notebook during class. He often performs with his guitar, and he’s good enough to do coffee house gigs if he ever wants to go that route. For now, at least, we are his primary audience. It’s very cool to me that he cares so much about the class that he chronicles his experience on a weekly basis.

Everyone is here because they want to be, which can’t be said for many other life situations! The students find the class via the BCAE catalog (print and online) or through word of mouth. Jane and Maria teach this class in addition to holding down “day jobs,” so this is a labor of love for them, a true avocation. 

After one of our term-ending recitals, clockwise fr L: Maria (accompanist), Kerry, Adeline, Lorin, Xiomara, DY, Brian, and Jane (course instructor).

The singing class generally runs in six to eight week terms, depending on the BCAE’s calendar. We typically use the last session of a term as a little recital, during which each of us sings two songs of our choice, without the coaching. Students may invite guests, and some do. It’s a neat way of wrapping up each term. As you can see from the photo above, we sometimes go out for a bite to eat afterward.

Opened in 1933, BCAE is one of the city’s non-profit fixtures, offering a wide array of adult education classes. Earlier this year, a few of us attended a BCAE fundraiser, featuring morsels and drinks provided by area restaurants and food producers. It was a lot of fun and a nice opportunity to support an organization whose space and staff help to make these classes a reality.

Supporting a BCAE fundraiser, L to R: Bonita, Adeline, Jane, and Maria.

This is one of my primary sources of work-life balance, to the extent that I can claim to have any! I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

The class attracts a friendly, supportive, and smart group of people who, individually and collectively, comprise a sort of natural diversity across many categories. Among current students, I’ve been there the longest — over 20 years! — but we’ve also got a steady cohort of repeat takers. Some come into the class with remarkable voices. Many others, like me when I started, are neophytes. Novice singers, however, need not be afraid. Jane has this way of helping just about anyone become a proficient singer, even people who might be classified as tone deaf.

Sinatra’s legacy faces no threat when I’m singing.

On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well. Some time ago, I was part of a small group of voice class singers that did free gigs at local senior facilities. One of our fellow students does the busker thing in nearby Harvard Square!

I am fortunate to have a career that engages my attention, but this class offers activity and community that provide needed contrasts from the world of work. I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends. All things considered, it’s about as ideal a hobby as one could expect, and for that I am very grateful. 

Related posts

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.

 

Devoted diversions

Screenshot from mlb.com

Screenshot from mlb.com

As I’ve written earlier, I’m in the midst of a research sabbatical semester, working away on a book project on workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as several other writing endeavors. While this stretch of time has been marked by one awful diversion (America’s presidential campaign), it also has brought the wonderful specter of my beloved Chicago Cubs finally playing their way into the World Series for the first time since 1945. And if they manage to win the World Series over another team historically bereft of post-season glory, the Cleveland Indians, then they will sit atop the major league baseball universe for the first time since 1908.

“Cubs fan” and “long suffering” are phrases that have been melded together in the world of sports fandom for decades. Any Cubs fan of, uh, a certain age knows that the years 1969, 1984, and 2003 signify on ongoing angst of hope followed by crushing defeat. But the current Cubs team seems to be different. It is young, supremely talented, confident, and well-managed. Making the World Series was a huge moment for Cubs fans and this team, and hopefully there is one more celebration to come. In any event, the Cubs look like serious contenders for several years to come.

For now, however, the Cubs faithful have been brought back down to earth with a Game 1 loss against a feisty Indians team. This will not be easy. And it so happens that I’m flying to Cleveland this week to visit a dear friend, and she’s an Indians fan. (This visit was planned before the baseball gods ordained this World Series matchup.) It’s probably good that I don’t have my own collection of Cubs fan clothing, as years of living in Boston and New York have taught me to be careful about proclaiming contrarian sports leanings too loudly. There’s already a “Cleveland Indians Championship Parade” event posted to Facebook, but I’m still hoping that my Cubs will rain on that parade.

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage

Hard to do without $$$

Hard to do without $$$

“Encore careers” is a term that has come to capture the dynamic of experienced professionals who step off of demanding, if highly paid, treadmills to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website (tag line “second acts for the greater good”) and a book devoted to encore careers. The inherent idea is this: You’ve made your pile of cash, or perhaps invested/inherited/married your way into it. Now it’s time to get away from the grind and do something more personally fulfilling.

I’ve written about encore careers on several occasions here on this blog. For those who can afford to move in this direction, the possibilities are rich. But it is increasingly clear that the option of pursuing an encore career will be available to very few Boomers and Gen Xers, and likely to few Millennials as well. The reason basically boils down to personal finances, including the costs of living, schooling, and raising a family, as well as the challenges of saving for retirement. Too many are already earning a modest income. They don’t need a lower paid encore career to put even more pressures on their financial well being. And for those who are underemployed or unemployed, the notion of an encore career may be sheer fantasy.

This is not to say that vocational mobility and new careers are impossibilities. Far from it. Additional training, education, and certifications can open up doors for people who are returning to the workforce or trying to switch gears. It isn’t always easy, but viable options exist.

However, the encore concept of making a bundle and then switching to a “making a difference” career isn’t very realistic for many people.

So even if earning a living at a job that provides scant psychic income is in the cards for the longer haul, does this mean that personally fulfilling work and activities can never enter one’s life picture? Nope, not by a longshot. For years, I’ve been promoting immersive avocations and hobbies as potential keys to a fulfilling life. They may include artistic and creative endeavors, outdoor and sporting activities, caring for animals, political and social causes, side gig businesses, intellectual projects, lifelong learning, community and faith-based service, or enjoyable pastimes.

In unusual instances, that avocation or hobby could transform into a decent paying, full-time gig. But even if it doesn’t, it can fill a gap in one’s life left by the intersection of work and personal obligations. Such activities may be enormously fulfilling and meaningful.

The challenges of finding personally rewarding work at decent pay will continue. Against this backdrop, vocations and hobbies will loom larger as sources of individual fulfillment. If you’d like to ponder this topic further, I invite you to read these earlier articles:

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

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