Saturday, January 28, 2023

Is the "civilized" world afflicted with “workism”?

Ross Douthat, Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study. NYTimes, Jan. 27, 2023.

Seven paragraphs in:

On the other hand, when you ask them to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being “financially independent” or happy in their work to their getting married and having kids, finances and jobs win out easily — by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either “extremely” or “very” important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.

I honestly find this result a little difficult to believe. As a normative matter, I can understand rating work and family equally or treating financial independence as the “extremely” important precursor to the “very” important hope of starting a family. But I don’t understand how almost 80 percent of parents (the subset of Americans committed to family formation!) could possibly rate family life — and with it, their own hope of grandkids — as only “somewhat” or “not at all” important for their offspring. These results seem so dramatically at variance with my own experience of parental culture (across lines of class, politics and religion) that I wonder whether some quirk of question design is influencing the numbers. [...]

But if you accept these results and combine them, you get an emphasis on work and finances over family, religion and politics that seems extremely relevant to the debate over the developed world’s declining birthrates. [...]

But the Pew data suggests a way that economic and cultural forces can unite to shape the way that people set priorities for adulthood. It’s possible, in this reading of the evidence, to grow up with the same theoretical aspirations for marriage and family as past generations, but also receive a strong cultural message that everything a different society might regard as fundamentally bigger than your job — religious faith and political ideology as well as love, marriage, kids, grandkids — is actually secondary, and however many children you want on paper, the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.

One term for this worldview is “workism,” defined by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson in 2019 as a quasi-religious commitment to fulfillment through intense professional commitment (and discussed at length by Stone and the sociologist Laurie DeRose in a 2021 Institute for Family Studies paper on global fertility).

You can interpret the workist worldview as meritocracy gone wild, its values spreading beyond the overeducated upper class to infuse and convert society as a whole. Or you can interpret it through the lens of Daniel Bell’s famous 1970s analysis of capitalism’s “cultural contradictions” — as an example of consumer capitalism’s logic working itself out to an ultimately self-undermining conclusion (because without marriages and kids there won’t be enough consumers soon enough).

1 comment:

  1. Yes, and in the US it has contributed to what has happened with a lot of undergraduate college programs by watering them down, floating the students with grade inflation. Although it takes some real chops to get through, a hyper-realized competitive drive to "succeed" will motivate students more so than a clearer desire to learn. Just my two cents. Students I am aware of know less about writing than they would have thirty or forty years ago.