We Live in a Careerist Culture


12/3/202212 min read

Over the course of your career, how long do you have to work? 20 years? 30 years? 40 years? You probably have a belief, a script you’ve developed, about how long people have to work in their careers. That script is based on your upbringing, your experiences, and ideas you’ve developed about what a career should be. Your script will influence how you answer the question. Think about it for a moment. How long do you have to work? Second question. How long do you want to work?

Are your answers to those two questions different?

Let me ask a final question. If you knew you didn’t have to work, would you still keep working? Would you work, not because you had to, but because you wanted to?

What’s the distinction? Choice.

Does your outlook on your job and career change knowing that you are free to make the choice to keep working or not? You might say, well it depends. Do I have to keep working my same job, or could I do something different? You tell me. The point is it would be your choice.

When it came to my career, I never really thought about it as a choice. I more or less took it for granted that I would have a career of some type, and it would follow an expected and predictable course. Like most people, I bought into the conventional wisdom of getting a good education, then getting a good job, and then working for 30 to 40 years. I believed I had to. People told me I had to. Beyond believing I had to work out of pure necessity, I believed work was what I was supposed to do.

person walking holding brown leather bag
person walking holding brown leather bag
Call it Careerism

As a college educated person, the gospel of career was preached to me. What was promised was not just upward social mobility, wealth, status, and security, but something much more. Having a career was what I was supposed to do to create my sense of identity and live out my highest calling. According to this script, my career should be one of the defining characteristics of who I was. If my job wasn’t my passion, either I was doing something wrong, or I just needed to look harder to find a job that was my passion. Dedicating myself to my career was what I was supposed to be doing to have purpose and meaning, and to live a good and successful life.

These beliefs are what I call "careerism".

Some people think of careerism in a more negative sense. They view it as being so devoted to a successful career that it comes at the expense of one's personal life, and even at the cost of one’s ethics and values. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines careerism as, “the policy or practice of advancing one's career, often at the cost of one's integrity”.

By this definition careerism is getting ahead at all costs. It’s acting in unscrupulous and unsavory ways to advance one’s career. It’s lying on your resume. It’s saying whatever needs to be said to get hired. It’s brown-nosing. It’s sucking up to the boss. It’s playing office politics. It’s throwing your coworker under the bus. It’s taking credit for someone else’s work. It’s fudging the numbers. It’s covering up your mistakes. It’s lying to a client. It’s sleeping your way to the top. Short of questionable ethics, it’s being the kind of workaholic who misses their kid’s soccer games and birthday parties. It’s being the person who can’t take time for their family and friends because they’re too busy getting ahead.

low-angle photography of man in the middle of buidligns
low-angle photography of man in the middle of buidligns

This might be what first comes to mind, but this isn’t really what amounts to careerism in our culture today. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things happen. Unethical and questionable behavior can be characteristic of careerism gone too far. It’s true that many people focus on their career to the detriment of their personal lives and relationships. There can be a dark-side to careerism, but I see it as analogous to eating too much ice-cream. Over-indulging could be considered gluttonous, but no one thinks the ice-cream is bad.

woman in white and red crew neck shirt eating ice cream
woman in white and red crew neck shirt eating ice cream
Similarly, we don’t really think careerism is bad. To the contrary, we see careerism as virtuous, although we might not readily recognize and admit it. Your career and professional pursuits are what you're supposed to do to live a good life. Your occupation should be a central focus of who you are. Some people may take these aims too far, but they have merely strayed from the righteous path. That's why we hold these people in such low regard. They’re getting ahead the wrong way. They might even be getting ahead at our expense. In the gospel of careerism, they aren’t following the script, and we all know the script. The script is commonly held and agreed upon because we live in a careerist culture. It's easier to narrowly cast careerism as a fringe issue, rather than admit we're living in a careerist culture, which might not be the best thing if we took the time to think about it.
woman wearing brown sweater holding lips
woman wearing brown sweater holding lips
How Do We Know We Live in a Careerist Culture?

One of the ways we know we live in a careerist culture is by asking people how they view their job. Does their job define who they are, or are they just collecting a paycheck? A 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center asked people just this. The survey asked respondents if their job was a central part of their identity, or if it was just what they did for a living.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, non-profit and government workers were the most likely to say their jobs gave them a sense of identity at 65% and 67% respectively. Generally, this makes sense as we tend to think of government and non-profit workers being more motivated by the mission and purpose of their organizations than by the paycheck. Most of these workers strongly believe in what their organizations do, and see their work as an expression of their personal values.

Following non-profit and government workers, self-employed workers were also likely to say their job gave them a sense of identity, at 62%. Again, these results make sense. Working for yourself can create a strong connection between your job and identity. For many self-employed, they are the brand, the talent, and the one solely responsible for the success or failure of their business.

By comparison, 42% of private sector employees said their job gave them a sense of identity, while 55% said their job was just what they did for a living.

Forty-two percent of private company workers saying their job gives them a sense of identity is not a small number in my estimation, but at first glance this does seem to run contrary to the idea of careerism. In a careerist culture, shouldn’t that number be higher?

Digging into the data from Pew revealed there was more to the story - it was the workers at the top of the socio-economic scales who identified the most with their jobs. Workers with postgraduate degrees were the most likely to say their job gave them a sense of identity at 77%, while 60% with bachelors, 48% with some college, and 38% with a high school diploma said the same.

Workers at the top of the income scale were also the most likely to see their job as part of their identity. Sixty percent of those with an annual income of $75,000 or more said they got a sense of identity from their job, compared with 45% making $30,000 to $74,999, and 37% with an income of less than $30,000. Pew didn’t break out income levels higher than $75,000, but one could easily assume a continued linear relationship between a work-driven sense of identity and higher incomes.

Similar to Pew, as part of their Work and Education poll, the Gallup Organization asked the same question of employed Americans from 1989 to 2014 – does your work give you a sense of identity or is it just what you do for a living?

The percent of employees who said work gave them a sense of identity was consistently in the mid-50s and as high as 58%. In 2014, the last year Gallup asked this question, 55% of all respondents agreed with sense of identity, but this number increased to 70% among college graduates. The fact that the question about work and self-identity is being asked at all by these survey organizations speaks volumes about how we have come to view the role and value of work, especially among the educated and economically elite.

man wearing academic gown
man wearing academic gown
man sitting beside side table
man sitting beside side table

In 2009, just 7 years prior to their 2016 poll, Pew asked people why they worked. Practical concerns like being able to support themselves and their family, saving for the future, receiving health benefits, having something to do, and even just being with people dominated the “big reasons” people worked. These kinds of basic needs are noticeably related to physiological, safety, and belonging needs towards the bottom of Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs.

Pew noted the consistency of these foundational needs, citing the 1989 General Social Survey which asked adults how they valued 10 different aspects of a job, including job security, high pay, flexible hours, and the opportunity to do interesting work. Job security topped the list back then as well, with 54% saying it was “very important” to them, more than double the proportion who said they most valued a high income (25%).

While practical concerns dominated, esteem needs such as living independently and feeling like a useful and productive person were also reasons a majority of people worked. Helping to improve society was a motivator for 42% of people, but other than that, reasons related to self-fulfillment, i.e. Maslow’s idea of self-actualization, didn’t make the list. In fact, it doesn’t seem that these types of questions were even asked.

Connecting work to a sense of self-identity it seems, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

It’s More than Identity, It’s Meaning

In late 2017 the Pew Research Center took on an even bigger question – what makes life meaningful? To tackle this ambitious topic, Pew used an open-ended question asking Americans to describe in their own words what makes their lives feel meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying. As such, this approach gave respondents the opportunity, unprompted, to describe the myriad things they found meaningful.

When the responses were tallied, “Family” easily ranked first on the list, with 69% of respondents mentioning it. Career ranked 2nd on the list at 34%, ahead of Money (23%), Spirituality and Faith (20%), Friends (19%), Activities and Hobbies (19%), Health (16%), Home and Surroundings (13%), and Learning (11%). As Pew noted, many other topics also arose in the open-ended question, such as doing good and belonging to a group or community, but these were not as common.

Think about that for a moment. Respondents could reply with anything and everything that brought them meaning, and could write as much as they wanted. Career, albeit a distant second, still ranked appreciably higher than things like health, spirituality, friendship, hobbies, living in a nice place, and personal development. Even less common were things like community, civic involvement, and doing good.

These responses reflect people’s individual values. Isn’t it fair to say that the aggregate of individuals’ values reflect our societal and cultural values overall? Is it worth considering if this the right rank ordering of our cultural values? Should we esteem a career over things like health, friendship, and doing good in the community?

The direction the research took next made Pew’s findings even more interesting. Pew sent a second survey containing a set of closed-ended questions which asked respondents to rate how much meaning and fulfillment they drew from each of 15 possible sources. This approach, while offering a limited series of options, rank ordered the relative importance Americans placed on sources of meaning in their lives.

Clear and consistent with the open-ended responses, “Spending time with family” ranked as the top choice, with 69% of respondents saying it provided a “great deal” of meaning and fulfilment. But this time, what came next in the rankings wasn’t Career, but rather being outdoors, spending time with friends, caring for pets, listening to music, reading, and religious faith. “Job or career” ranked 8th on the list of 15, with 34% of respondents saying it provided a “great deal” of meaning.

The disconnect between the two surveys is worth examining. Why is it that when asked in an open-ended format Career ranked 2nd, but when forced to rank other sources of meaning, Career fell to the middle of the list? It could be that the open-ended format elicited what was truly the most important to people, without being influenced by other choices in the closed-format question. In other words, this format does indeed best reflect what people value. On the other hand, it was almost as if in the open-ended scenario people had difficulty thinking much beyond their careers. Perhaps that says something evening more profound about our careerist culture.

I don't know for sure that's what was going on in the first survey, isn't it at least plausible people might have trouble thinking beyond their career? Work and career have become central aspects of life. For many, work occupies the vast majority of their time. Not only that, but having a good career is highly valued in our modern culture. Other than "Family" is there a more socially desirable and readily available response? As it turns out, much of Pew’s research shows that work is one of the most common sources of meaning, not just for Americans, but for adults around the world. In 12 of the 17 advanced economies they surveyed in 2021, work was among the top three most mentioned topics. In Spain, it ranked even higher than family and children.

The importance of work isn’t limited to adults. In fact, work has become so esteemed that today’s teenagers rate it higher than other life goals. In a 2019 survey from Pew, 95% of teens ages 13-17 said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be either extremely (63%) or very (32%) important to them as an adult. This ranked higher than “helping other people who are in need” (81%), getting married (47%), or even having a lot of money (51%). Perhaps having an enjoyable career was the most proximate or tangible long-term goal asked of the teens, but it is nonetheless a telling fact about our culture that teens as young as 13 already have career aspirations. Not at all a coincidence, this survey from Pew was on the problem of teen anxiety and depression.

Another indication that the culture of careerism is ascendant is from the way Americans view the role of education. According to a 2016 report from Pew, over half of Americans said the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while 35% think its main purpose should be to help students grow and develop personally and intellectually. The final 13% of respondents said these objectives were equally important.

Further on the topic of education, a 2018 paper from the University of Virginia found that for women, the most important benefit of attending a selective college wasn’t higher wages, but more hours at the office. Amazingly, the value of the college degree is not more money but more work. A 2018 article in the Atlantic described this counterintuitive finding further: “Women who graduate from elite schools delay marriage, delay having kids, and stay in the workforce longer than similar women who graduate from less-selective schools. This finding complicates the trendy “opting out” theory, which says that women who graduate from top schools are particularly likely to drop out of the labor force after they have children. In fact, the only gender-specific effect of attending elite colleges is that female graduates are more career-focused.”

So just to recap these research findings:

  • Work gives us a sense of identity, especially highly educated, high income earners

  • Work is what people say provides meaning, but it depends on how the question is asked

  • It is extremely important to 13-year-olds to have a career they enjoy

  • Most people think the main purpose of college is career preparation as opposed to intellectual and personal development

  • Women from elite colleges are delaying marriage and kids to work more

How is it that having a career came to occupy such an important position in people’s collective psyches? How is it that having a job went from providing safety, security, and some basic esteem and belonging, to our careers being one of our main sources of identity and meaning? When did we start looking to our jobs and careers for the majority of our self-esteem needs, and beyond that, the hope of realizing our fullest potential? To understand how this came to be, it is important to understand who the main disciples of careerism are. It is important to understand the rise of the knowledge worker.