Emory is a place of diverse faiths and tradition, but work idolatry seems to dominate the student body. Students are obsessed with prioritizing academics, internships, work and athletics — sometimes at the expense of mental health. The Emory community worships work like fervent Christians worship the gospel, where studying becomes more than just a means to get a good grade, but almost like a religion.
In the Emory community, if you’re not constantly studying or being productive, it can feel like you’re failing.
In the words of The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, “rich, college-educated people … are reared from their teenage years to make their passion their career.” Thompson argues that for poor and middle-class Americans, work is simply a necessity. For college-educated elite, it is “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence and community.”
For some of us, the drive to always be at work isn’t motivated by economic reasons. Unless you’re a second-semester senior anxious about what you’re doing next year, work idolatry is often cultural, even spiritual, and for good reason. Emory wants to be an innovative and productive place; few would argue there’s anything bad about having a strong work ethic.
It’s important to note that Emory’s ingroup work culture isn’t too different from most other universities: a 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that, among teens, having an enjoyable job or career is their most important goal. Nationally, work trumps the pre-med dream of “I just want to help people,” and it tops business school aspirations to secure a job with a six-figure starting salary. Work and career are everything for many millennials — more important than friends, family, future relationships and even children.
Unlike the rest of the developed world, America offers no paid leave for expecting parents. While most advanced countries guarantee universal health care, Americans get it from work. And Republicans aren’t the only ones contributing to this toxic culture: in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the “Welfare to Work” bill, replacing welfare system benefits with work-based benefits, making people even more reliant on their employment. For our generation, and especially those of us pursuing postgraduate education, work is everything, and social and economic pressure makes us believe this.
Some argue that this work culture is not a bad thing. Ask any graduating senior who has not yet secured a job, and you can see the power of unemployment stigma first-hand. Work, then, is a paradox: we love complaining about how much we have to do, but we feel terrible when we have too much free time. We need work to feel meaningful.
There is failure in everything, but there’s a huge distinction between enjoying work and worshipping it. Work idolatry becomes an epidemic when a professional failure leads to an identity overhaul: when your productivity determines your self-worth as a human being. A need becomes an addiction when 87 percent of Americans aren’t engaged with their jobs, largely due to work idolatry, and we need to have a culture change to make sure our identities aren’t dependent on our professional performance.
Work, studying and academic performance are not meant to be everything. Success in work is very dependent on the market, and that success is based rapidly changing circumstances.
To base your identity in anything so tumultuous will lead to constant disappointment and depression. Working long hours just makes us more stressed, counterintuitively leading to being even less productive.
Remember that you navigate your life; your grades, internships or job offers don’t control you. Find the constants in your life that won’t change and you will be happier and — paradoxically — work better because of it.
Ryan Fan (19C) is from Stony Brook, N.Y.