I always roll my eyes when people brag about how crazy their schedule is. Guess what? Your Google calendar doesn’t impress me. Because the world sees work as an indication of drive and success, most people’s look the same. In 2019, most of us seem to define our lives by the amount of little multi-color boxes in our planners. Those boxes show that we are doing something meaningful, we are doing something that gives us purpose to our temporal existence here on Earth.
We glorify the act of hustling and working ourselves to the bone. One of the biggest movies in theaters right now is literally titled ‘Hustlers.' The most influential figures in today’s world are people like Elon Musk (the creator of Tesla) and Jack Dorsey (the co-founder of Twitter) who only sleep 4-6 hours a night and own multiple companies. Even though doctors recommend 7-9 hours of sleep each night and a balanced diet, people look up to the Silicon Valley tech moguls that swear by drinking soylent to minimize eating time in order to get more work done. But how is promoting sleep deprivation and starvation motivational?
Perhaps the admiration of hard labor and maximizing time working stems back to the creation of capitalism. I remember reading The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber in my Introduction to Sociology course my first year of undergrad. In the book, Weber ties in the role of religion and value of life with the physical act of work. In short, he says that hard work will not only earn you more money, but you will also be valued more in the eyes of God. If you work hard, you are more likely to go to heaven. He even mentions the words of Benjamin Franklin who said: “Remember, that time is money.” The more you work, the better life you will have. If you don’t work, you are essentially worthless during your time on Earth and during the afterlife.
Why is this still the case 114 years after this text was published? It would seem as though after years of labor union reform and the fight for more time off and better pay, people would be more inclined to rest and relax when possible. However, it is not. If you’re anything like me, the moment you have free time you begin to panic. And when I say panic, I truly mean feeling an immense amount of guilt and questioning my purpose and my self-worth from spending 2-hours watching a television show once a week.
Even working an 8-hour workday isn’t considered hard enough in today’s age. One of my closest friends recently sent me a photo of his 15-hour shift, this being only one of many overtime days this week. He craves purpose and accomplishment from his day. According to the National Association of Counties, the gig economy is increasing. In fact, "the gig economy rose from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015." People want freedom and flexibility to do more with their time. They want to work more.
I find this almost funny since we are also existing in a time where “self-care” practices and relaxation apps are pushed at individuals as if they are the solutions to all of our anxieties. But perhaps we wouldn’t need to use these apps or spend immense amounts of money on therapists if we weren’t driving ourselves insane trying to be the ultimate money-making, gym-going, happy-feeling people.
Is it money and recognition that drives the population of the modern era? Pulling oneself up from the bootstraps and being self-made is the American dream. If you, the reader were to make 1 billion dollars today, would you stop working and spend the rest of your time on the beach? Perhaps you would, but personally, I couldn’t. Despite money being a large driving factor for me, I don’t think I would. I believe it goes beyond some sort of monetary compensation. It is an intrinsic sense of completion and worth.
So is work our only legacy, our greatest strength? What about people who are disabled or mentally handicapped? Does their value as a human decrease? What about veterans? You don’t have to say “no, we’re all equal” just to make yourself feel better. This is a mindset many people have (especially those in authority). Many dictators and politicians over time forced disabled bodies into asylums and institutions. It wasn’t until the 1990's when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law!
Work isn't the only thing that makes someone valuable. I could tell you how my day starts at 7:30 am and ends at 11:30 pm, but that isn’t very interesting now is it? In fact, you’ll probably think I’m a crazy person. Plot twist: I am. But I am this way as a result of societal conditioning and expectations: the sociological imagination.
Ultimately, we are afraid of running out of time and feeling as though we did not have a
meaningful existence. The rainbow boxes aligned in a perfectly programmed row give us some sort of value and identity. Not all people are addicted to work like I am, but for those that are, we must understand that it goes beyond us and our generation. Our feelings of guilt and unworthiness stem back to religion and the economic foundations of our culture.