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In The Absence Of Faith, Has Productivity Become Our New Religion?

In today's always-on world, employees crave any quick-fix that promises a chance at regaining control over their time.

In his 1930 essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a 15-hour workweek and five-day weekend would prevail in the 21st century. 

“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,” Keynes wrote, “how to occupy the leisure."

Decades of recession, World War aftermath, Civil Rights movements and conformity later – and likely, as a result of such socioeconomic changes – how we occupied our downtime changed wholly.

When one epoch ends, it usually signifies the beginning of a new and entirely different beast.

This is likely a result of discontent with the era before it paired with the desire to start anew. 

Following feminism movements of the 60s where women burned bras and demanded voting rights, the silencing of women by way of mass violence (Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans) reigned.

The depression-framed late eighties acted as a harbinger of the hedonistic late nineties and early aughts which predated global poverty and Trump populism.

In 1957 – as the labour force began to shrink with the introduction of modern technology – an article published in The New York Times by Erik Barnouw predicted that, as work became easier, our identity would be defined by our hobbies or our family life.

“The increasingly automatic nature of many jobs, coupled with the shortening workweek [leads] an increasing number of workers to look not to work but to leisure for satisfaction, meaning, expression,” he wrote.

The quest for achieving peak productivity is now akin to a creed, one consisting of leaders (gurus, life hack specialists, productivity coaches), teachings (apps, tools, reminders, re-designs), and willing aspirants (early adopters, workshop participants, standing desk devotees).

For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising transcendence and community but failing to deliver.

Capitalism, by its very nature, can not only ever be stationary – a search for “how to be more productive” yields, at present count, 202,000,000 results – but what remains deeply precarious about our newfound fixation is that it is a rather uninteresting goal.

Isn’t peak productivity an oddly deflating cultural ideal, especially when put in comparison with the likes of climbing Everest or finishing symphonies?

How did excessive working become so aspirational?

A more fundamental question than how we can supercharge our productivity is why we place so much importance on doing so in the first place.

First explanations can only take us so far.

Some speak of being overwhelmed at work and of the desire to no longer feel that way. Others write of the immense satisfaction associated with box-ticking.

Still, many refer to the limited amount of hours in a day coupled with a large number of demands placed upon them – and hope, as a result of their becoming more productive, that they can have more time to do whatever it is they wish to do.

These explanations can be reduced to two basic kinds.

The first kind implies that much of life is burdened by mental suffering — feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed — that can, through our own concerted efforts, be alleviated or at least coped with by finding the right productivity hacks.

The second suggests that life is an epic battle whose finale would depict a form of satisfaction following from the completion of the most challenging tasks at work. 

Yet neither the desire to lessen our everyday mental suffering nor the pursuit for short-term satisfaction ultimately explains our deep cultural obsession with productivity. 

For most people, work time already extends far beyond office hours.

We reply to emails en route, follow the latest trends on social media on the way home before finally networking before bed. Some are convinced we have to do this to stay competitive. It may even be true in some cases.

The recent structural shift in the workplace that we've collectively witnessed since the turn of the century is also at fault here. 

As computers became more commonplace, and mainframes showed the awe-inspiring efficiencies of information processing, office workers faced new battles to keep pace with the speed and logic of machines.

This paired with the mutually reinforcing appeal of productivity in HR and IT departments, stating that fewer resources are required for a job.

If workers can be encouraged to demonstrate their own efficiency, to see this as a badge of honour, this weakens collective demands for more colleagues to share the load.

Thus, the birth of a term coined by Atlantic writer Derek Thompson; workism. 

Much can also be said for the decline of traditional faith in the Western world, making way for a myriad of newer non-theisms that have eschewed the rheumatics of yore. 

The aftermath of this has resulted in our human desire to obey and seek control to be pointed outward. Nowadays, we worship influencers and celebrities and political leaders or even our own children.

Today, religion and power – despite the swift dropping point from the former – are still connected.

Research claims that cues of one or several gods can increase obedience within a State, especially in times of political or economic instability. It also allows for the human needs of belonging and purpose.

In this manner, productivity and work as a whole have, quite easily, slotted into the empty centrepiece where religion once boasted residence. 

What's different between now and work-heavy times of the past, however, is that millennials and Gen-Z earnestly believe in what they're working for. 

Whereas the sixties and seventies blue-collar workers berated The Man, today's youths look to become The Man. 

Subordinates now search for companies with clear missions and agreeable morals; a vocation instead of a day-job. 

This, in turn, is reciprocated by companies who prioritise happiness – or, at least, purport to – over return on investment. 

In the subculture of productivity, the aesthetics of activity becomes the guiding principle for charting a course that feels something like a career and a purpose.

And, perhaps most importantly, there is the hope of control: The productivity industry offers the promise that IT users can reclaim ownership of their time in today’s always-on workplace.

Feelings like these are becoming a mantra for a disgruntled generation who seek a different future. 

As Maynard Keynes concluded his essay, he wrote: "There's no guarantee that all this will happen, of course. But the ingredients are in place." 

Is this foreshadowing for the future of faith?

Or have we already managed to manipulate the aforementioned ingredients into a religion of our own making?

Main image by @stormibree

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