Questioning the Gospel of Careerism


12/28/202215 min read

As a highly conscientious, industrious, and intellectually minded person I have always been susceptible to the gospel of careerism. Personality aside, it was part of my cultural ecosystem – the waters I swam in so to speak. As a comparison, how many people consciously choose their faith versus being born into it? Whether it’s religion, political affiliation, or allegiance to a sports team, are they really choices or accidents of birth? I think it’s a bit of both.

Careerism is certainly a belief system we’re born into, but it’s also a religion people convert to, albeit somewhat unwittingly. No one consciously tells themselves they are going to craft and curate their identity from their career. We pick up and follow the same careerist script everyone else does, just like worshippers pick up and sing from the same hymn sheet every Sunday.

Growing up you probably didn’t want to go church, but your parents made you. After a while, you knew it was expected of you and so you did it more willingly. You may not have believed or understood the doctrine, but you had the innate sense it was the right thing to do. From there, the more you sit in a pew, say the prayers, sing the hymns, and perform the rituals, the more you genuinely start to believe. At the very least going through the motions is habitual. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s reassuring. For many of us, our scholastic and professional careers follow the same trajectory. Besides, what else is on the menu? Being an uncouth pagan who doesn’t attend the church of careerism? Do we even know what the other options are? Do we really have a choice?

person holding opened song book
person holding opened song book
The Amish Have a Choice…Sort Of

The Amish have a rite of passage called Rumspringa. It’s a period of time during adolescence when they still aren’t baptized, and aren’t under the authority of the church. During this time they experiment with “worldly” activities to gain knowledge and experience with the non-Amish way of life. Rumspringa ranges widely from “singings” where teens gather to sing hymns and gospel songs, to unsupervised rebellion filled with raging parties, alcohol, illegal drugs, and pre-marital sex. If the 2002 documentary, Devil’s Playground is even a semi-accurate depiction, these kids get up to some wild shit.

Whether it’s picnics or partying, Rumspringa has an instrumental purpose. Their fling with worldliness reminds Amish youth they have a choice whether or not to be baptized as members of the church. Some say leaving the church doesn’t necessarily prevent the Amish from returning for adult baptism, but at worst leaving the church can result in outright shunning from their family and community.

man and woman riding horse carriage
man and woman riding horse carriage

Either way, about 90% of Amish youth return to the church, raising the question about how much of a choice it truly is. Most forces are pushing them towards an Amish life, and arguably the “choice” only exists to strengthen their willingness to obey the norms and authority of the church as its members. Still, even if it is a rather compelled choice, at least Amish kids know there is a choice to be made.

A Careerist Rite of Passage

What if we practiced a similar rite of passage in careerism? What if young people were given time to experience life outside of careerist doctrine and authority in order to make a more informed choice about their future? You could say we do. A similar ritual exists in careerism. It’s called taking a “gap year”.

According to the Gap Year Association, A gap year is “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.”

The gap year has its roots in post-war Britain, when the National Service Act required men 18-20 to serve in the armed forces or an essential job for 18 months. The National Service was gradually phased out, but it contributed to the idea that doing service for a year or two helped students become more mature and ready for university. Having worked with early career teammates who served in the military, I would agree the Brits were on to something. It’s more than being a few years older and more mature that vets have over their peers, although that helps. There is a certain perspective, poise, and adaptability they bring to the table that the Ivy-leaguer on the fast-track who has experienced minimal adversity in their life just doesn’t have.

men in red uniform playing instrument
men in red uniform playing instrument

A less commonly cited, but laudable, take on the intent of the gap year was one of cultural exchange. There was a belief that giving young people the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures would increase the chances of achieving world peace as new generations gained understanding and appreciation of other cultures, customs, and ways of life.

Generally speaking, these are high-minded and good intentions. A gap year traveling the world, engaging in service projects, volunteering, studying a new field, interning, etc. can certainly broaden one’s horizons, increase self-awareness, develop new cultural perspectives, and get you out of your comfort zone. It might be tempting to think that the purpose of these new, different, eye-opening experiences would be for young people to consider alternatives to the traditional career path. Tempting, but wrong.

Rethinking a traditional career isn’t the purpose of a gap year. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. As the Gap Year Association states, “intentional gap years benefit students in some profound ways: Providing clarity and purpose, the student will have a better grasp on what they want to study; Improving earning and business potential with a global background that is tested in the professional world; Improving academic outcomes such as GPA, time-to-graduation, and leadership.”

person in gray shirt with backpack walking on street between houses
person in gray shirt with backpack walking on street between houses

Ultimately the purpose of a gap year is for students to recharge and prevent scholastic burnout. It serves to ensure students stay on track and early careerists enter the job market. The name itself gives away the intent. A gap is created between otherwise continuous scholastic and professional advancement. A gap year is a break, a pause, a delay, an interlude, a breather, a respite, a hiatus...but it’s a gap because it’s connecting past to future career advancement.

When it boils right down to it, while the illusion of choice might be there, just like 90% of Amish youth return to the church, 90% of gap year students return to careerism. Just like Rumspringa, a gap year has the instrumental purpose of strengthening careerists’ willingness to obey the norms and authority of careerism.

It’s not to say that a gap year isn’t beneficial. Anything that takes some pressure off scholastics and the career fast-track to open their aperture and broaden their perspective is good for young people. Practically speaking, given the high cost of college, taking a beat to decide how you want to educate yourself makes a ton of sense. But again, that’s really the point, isn’t it?

Various websites across the internet use this same verbiage as they come right out and say it, “It’s usually a time to discover yourself and consider what kind of education and career you want to pursue.” Are you really “discovering yourself” when, for the most part, your final destination is already determined?

If you decide to be pre-med instead of pre-law, does it really matter when ultimately your career is going to be in investment banking? Is deciding whether to have chocolate cake or apple pie a consequential choice when you already know you’re not skipping desert?

sliced chocolate cake beside fork on plate
sliced chocolate cake beside fork on plate

When it comes right down to it, the gap year is about the most careerist thing we could do for our young people. It is intended to reinforce, not question the career path. A gap year, far from being a test of faith, really does amount to a rite of passage. It’s ceremonial, it’s ritualistic, and it’s symbolic. It’s not a choice to separate from the tribe, it’s the tribe initiating them into the next phase of their careerist life.

Give Me That New-Time Religion

I haven’t been shy or subtle about directly comparing careerism to religion. Just to be clear, I don’t think careerism is like a religion, I think it is a religion. It checks all the boxes:

  • Right Beliefs: The point of college is to get a good job; Your job should be the defining characteristic of you are; A career is what you are supposed to do to live a good and successful life; devotion to your job will be rewarded

  • Myths and stories: The Social Network, Pirates of Silicon Valley, Jobs, The Pursuit of Happyness

  • Sacred texts: Do What you Are, What Color is Your Parachute, What Got You Here Won’t Get you There, Designing Your Life

  • Rituals: graduations, celebrating a first job or new job, work anniversaries, getting promoted, new employee onboarding, office parties, retirement parties, etc.

  • Symbols: degrees, certifications, inflated job titles, business cards, LinkedIn profiles, corner offices, expensive office decor, power suits, reserved parking, best workplaces lists, each and every status symbol we buy to reward ourselves for getting a raise

  • Social structures: organizational charts & hierarchies, compensation & pay structures, the prestige of some jobs over others

  • Communities: professional associations, employee resource & affinity groups, user groups and forums, conferences and symposiums, company all hands meetings

  • Religious leaders: CEOs, boards of directors, executive/senior VPs, bosses, managers, thought leaders, influencers, celebrity businesspeople

  • Ethics, morals, codes of conduct, scripts for behavior: employee handbooks, employment contracts, performance appraisals, professional networking, interviewing techniques, email etiquette

  • Sacred places, places of worship: modern offices designed to enhance the “employee experience”

  • Religious experience and spirituality: getting “lost” in your work, experiencing flow, continuously searching for purpose, passion, and meaning in your work, the quest for the perfect job, company missions to change the world, bringing your whole, authentic self to work

standing man wearing black Pray cap raising right hand
standing man wearing black Pray cap raising right hand

I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson, calls it the religion of workism. In his seminal 2019 article titled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable”, Thompson describes workism as 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. The tagline for his article: “For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.”

As Thompson explores in his article, the most affluent Americans always worked less because they could afford to, but are now choosing to work more. Why would this be? Thompson posits the reason might not be economic at all. He thinks the reason is deeper – emotional, even spiritual. As Thompson writes, “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”.

Carol Chen, a sociologist who studies religion, makes a similar case in her 2022 New York Times op-ed, "When Your Job Fills In for Your Faith, That’s a Problem". In her article, Chen describes insights from over 100 interviews she conducted for her book, Work, Pray, Code, which chronicles the experience of tech workers in Silicon Valley. People who, according to Chen, told her over and over that their careers are “spiritual journeys” and their work is a “calling.” As Chen says in this interview, “work is sacred to tech workers. Their companies and startups are the faith communities that spiritually form them and direct their devotion, giving them meaning, purpose and belonging in life.” But as she discovered during her research, the gospel of work is "thin gruel", an ethically empty solution to meet our essential need for belonging and meaning.

The idea that people can turn work into something resembling a religion not only seems plausible, but obvious. It has been well documented that traditional religiosity is on the decline. In 1972, when the General Social Survey (GSS) first began asking Americans, “What is your religious preference?” 90% identified as Christian and 5% were religiously unaffiliated. As of 2022, about 30% of Americans now tell the GSS they have “no religion.”

The decline of traditional religion doesn’t necessarily suggest people are any less religiously inclined. Humans evolved to need and make meaning. We seem to be hardwired with the capacity to turn anything into a religion. We have what has been called a religious instinct. Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists point out that religious beliefs are one of the few human universals that appear in all cultures. From an evolutionary perspective, belief in deities and rituals promoted cooperation among practitioners. Even neuroscientists have studied how neural functioning in the brain changes as a result of religious experiences, as well as merely contemplating God.

The rise of careerism has coincided, especially in recent years, with rapid secularization and the decline of traditional religion as noted by the GSS. But since humans have a religious instinct, that does seem to leave a god-size hole in many peoples’ lives. To feel whole, we need to fill up that void with something else. What is that something else?

Take your pick. For social justice warriors it’s political activism. For environmentalists it’s communing with nature. For the vapid it’s building an alter to themselves on social media. For vegans it’s the food they put in their bodies and the clothes they wear. For athletes it’s the pursuit of trophies and medals. For the fitness crazed it’s their exercise regime. For the new atheists it's science and reason. For the new agers it’s meditation and the teachings of a mystic yogi.

woman taking selfie
woman taking selfie
grayscale photo of woman in black t-shirt and black sunglasses
grayscale photo of woman in black t-shirt and black sunglasses

For a great many of us in our careerist culture, it’s work and career.

For the record, I don’t want to come off as bashing religion. As a Catholic drop out, my personal religious views are best described as agnostic. I don’t hold overly negative or positive views towards religion. On the one hand, I’m strongly against any form of religious dogma that leads to intolerance, closed-mindedness, and violence. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the social and societal benefits of religiosity. Religion does seem to be associated with a number of desirable outcomes such as sense of community, longer life spans, charitable giving and volunteerism, stable marriages and families, less crime, substance abuse and addiction, etc.

The Pebble in My Shoe

I never took a gap year and I didn’t get to experience anything like Rumspringa. Did I miss my opportunity to make a conscious choice to fully and intentionally commit to the church of careerism? Maybe, but it doesn’t really work like that.

Do some kids get more pressure than others when it comes to school and occupational choice? For sure. Do kids from more affluent households have more options than kids from less well-off ones? They do. I was never forced down a path or told what to do by my parents other than study hard, get good grades, and don’t get in trouble at school. Did I have choices about the direction my life took? Countless. Did I really have a choice about having a career? Hard to say. To answer that would probably create an existential crisis trying to reconcile free will and determinism.

When it comes to questioning your careerist faith, it’s less about identifying your moment of choice, and more about identifying your moment of doubt. When I was in second grade I went through my First Reconciliation. First Reconciliation is a sacrament in the Catholic Church when you confess your sins to a priest for the first time. When my time came, not really understanding the purpose or process (despite CCD classes), I suddenly found myself in a confessional with a priest who was asking me to confess my sins.

Even though I’m sure there were things that would have fit the bill, at the time I couldn’t think of how I had sinned or what I had done so wrong that I needed to ask for God’s forgiveness. So what did I do? I lied.

I made up a story about getting in a fight with my brother that day. The thing is, I probably did get in a fight with my brother. As twin brothers that’s what we did. We didn’t get into knock down drag out fights. We didn’t hurt each other or break stuff. We were 7 and generally good kids. It was more like healthy sibling rivalry which amounted to some pushing, shoving and rough housing. At worst we did it at inappropriate times when we should have been better behaved. Mom would tell us to knock it off, which we pretty much promptly did. Other than frazzling my mom’s nerves now and then, I didn’t have the sense it was sinful and I didn’t feel particularly bad about it. But, I needed a sin, so I created a story.

Then it hit me. I had just lied to a priest. I went into the confessional a saint and left a sinner. I instantly felt bad. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. But I was a good kid, and I knew that. What kind of religion makes good kids confess to being bad when they haven’t done anything wrong? I had been spanked with a wooden spoon maybe once or twice when I really screwed up. If that didn’t square things with God what was talking to a priest going to do? Even at age 7 the seeds of doubt were firmly planted.

man sitting on bench
man sitting on bench

When it came to my careerist faith, I never had that kind of pivotal moment. I earnestly enjoyed my scholastic “career”, and was happy to continue it into graduate school, but as my professional career progressed was having trouble resonating with the gospel of careerism. The doubt setting in was more subtle, and more gradual, but looking back it was there. About 4 or so years into my career I can distinctly recall telling a friend and colleague I wasn't sure I wanted to be an industrial psychologist any more. Interestingly that wasn't really my profession, but rather what I studied in grad school. He of course assured me I still did want to continue that as a profession. He was an industrial psychologist too.

A year or so after that, already feeling burned out in my consulting career, I was exploring going back to school for clinical psychology, while simultaneously studying for a professional certification I thought would advance my consulting career. There's doubt, there's ambivalence, there's questioning, but there's also the compulsion to keep going, keep striving, and keep succeeding.

I liken it to running a marathon with a pebble in your shoe. At first you think it’s the pebble in your shoe that’s the irritant. But when you remove the pebble, the race is still hard. Then you think, maybe if I had a new pair of shoes the race would get easier and more enjoyable. So, you get a new pair of shoes and keep running. Things improve for a mile or so, but in no time at all the race is no better than before. The finish line continues to be so far off that you can’t see it, and even though you can’t quite remember why you started running in the first place, you feel compelled to keep going.

people running on gray asphalt road during daytime
people running on gray asphalt road during daytime

It took me a while to realize I didn’t want to be running the race, but even then, I didn’t think quitting was an option. Still, just like anyone who starts questioning their faith, my feelings of dissonance began to grow. I really didn’t want my job to define who I was, and I found that the longer I worked, the less I wanted to keep working.

I think many careerists wrestle with the same internal tension and doubt I was feeling. Do our careers truly provide meaning, or do we just need them to so we can justify how much time, energy, and resources we have invested in them? As opposed to being deeply fulfilled with our careers isn’t it just as likely we’re trying to convince ourselves we are in order reconcile the massive cognitive dissonance that would otherwise occur?

Just like religion provides comfort and reassurance in troubling times, careerism reassures us that our careers are worth it. The pearly gates of careerist heaven will open wide and purpose meaning with swell in our hearts with every email and conference call if we believe in and commit to the faith. At a minimum, devotion to our jobs keeps our out if the fiery pits of careerist hell, by helping us make those minimum credit cards payments and financing our lifestyle.

closed gold metal gate
closed gold metal gate
red flame
red flame

The trouble is, once the nagging feeling that your career isn’t your be-all-and end-all kicks in, it’s hard to shake. But there’s another problem - you’re stuck in a loop.

In Summary...
  • Careerism is a religion we're more or less born into

  • We're given the illusion of choice about their careers

  • There is a god-sized hole in our lives many fill with work and career

  • Identifying and acknowledging your moments of doubt are how you begin to question your careerist faith