Here’s a thing I read recently that I think is true:
“We’ve created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work,” says Oren Cass, the author of the book The Once and Future Worker. “We tell young people that their work should be their passion. ‘Don’t give up until you find a job that you love!’ we say. ‘You should be changing the world!’ we tell them. That is the message in commencement addresses, in pop culture, and frankly, in media, including The Atlantic.”
But our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office. It’s hard to self-actualize on the job if you’re a cashier—one of the most common occupations in the U.S.—and even the best white-collar roles have long periods of stasis, boredom, or busywork. This mismatch between expectations and reality is a recipe for severe disappointment, if not outright misery, and it might explain why rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. are “substantially higher” than they were in the 1980s, according to a 2014 study.
I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately. It seems right to want to love your work and find intense meaning in it. Most of us spend the majority of our waking life at work. To do something you don’t care about for 40 hours a week seems crazy and self-defeating.
But for most of us, work isn’t fun. We might enjoy it sometimes, but even us freelancers have to go through the daily slog of email and invoicing and often mundane projects that don’t even attempt to light up our creative brains but do pay the bills.
The article sees the solution to our happiness as working less. Once our culture shifts enough to allows for fewer work hours, we’ll be able to spend more time on our friends, family, and hobbies. That seems a pretty long way off for many of us who have piles of debt and insane rent prices to contend with and a government run by conservatives who are the worst at worshiping Work. Are we doomed to be unhappy until the economy catches up with our humanity?
That’s bleak. I’m still going to try and love my work in the meantime, because even if I’m only doing my job 15 hours a week, that’s still a pretty hefty chunk of my life. I’d like to enjoy that time if I can.