The trend toward intense 70-hour work weeks is well-documented. Yet even as it has become standard in some industries to work until midnight on most weekdays, there’s also a trend in the opposite direction.
German union IG Metall recently negotiated an agreement allowing workers to work 28 hours (with adjusted pay) instead of the full 35 hours, for instance, and a startup based in Portland experimented with tacking back to 32 hours in 2015 (it reverted to a 5 day 40 hour workweek a year later). Four-day weeks are a regular topic of discussion.
When I look closely at the opposing discussions—one that involves working as much as possible, the other for fewer hours than has for a century been considered standard—I see not only a conversation about hours but one about two conflicting philosophies of work: the Protestant view of labor and the Catholic view of labor.
One of these perspectives sees work as a privilege. The other sees it as a necessary, inextricable burden. One affirms the idea of work as a calling, the other a belief in values beyond work. One sees work as intrinsically valuable, the other as largely a means to an end. And one embraces the work ethic, while the other nods toward an ethic of leisure.
In brief, they’re presenting two rival conceptions of the good life. And they can’t both be right.
The Protestant view: Is work a calling?
The “Protestant view of work” is based on the idea that work is just about the best sort of thing that one can do with one’s life. Protestants describe work as a “calling,” a harmony between the individual’s work, whatever this might be, and the divine purpose.
The eminent sociologist Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for instance, observes with curiosity that a “person does not ‘by nature’ want to make more and more money, but simply to live—to live in a manner in which he is accustomed to live, and to earn as much as is necessary for this.” This he terms “traditionalism,” which, he thinks, is overturned by the Calvinist concept of a vocation or “calling” (Begriff). The calling, he argues, enabled Calvinists to see their worldly pursuits in the light of a divine purpose while seeking to assure themselves that their actions were a confirmation of their having been elected by God.
In his book Just Work, political scientist Russell Muirhead claims that a calling is an “ideal fit” between an individual’s aptitudes and social needs. When this is so, the aim of work shifts from that of merely meeting a material necessity to being something that is an end in itself. “Callings,” he elaborates,
involve a fit between individuals and their work that not only links individual aptitudes with specific occupations but also connects work, however ordinary, with the highest purposes individuals can serve…. By connecting work to an individual’s most urgent needs [for meaning and fulfillment], callings establish not merely a basic fit but an ideal one between individuals and their work. As such they underwrite a commitment and devotion to the working life.
The trouble with this picture of the calling is that it presupposes a Christian metaphysic that is no longer available to most of us: the proposal that any job whatsoever can be a calling because it’s an expression of divine purpose no longer has purchase on most people’s lives.
As a result, Muirhead observes as he glosses Weber’s seminal work, “modern workers in general, and workaholic Americans in particular, cannot escape working as if it were a calling. We work, and have to work, with devotion, in settled paths, over long hours and sustained years, as if work were its own purpose apart from the money and status that it might bring.”
In our time, the secular concept of the career has come to replace the Christian concept of the calling while smuggling in some of the calling’s virtues such as dedication and resolve. The problem is that the career lacks the metaphysical backing to legitimately do so. For unlike a calling, a career cannot serve God by augmenting his divine glory.
A career, therefore, manages to make work seem as if it should be an end in itself while requiring hard work and diligence for the sake chiefly or only of external goods: money, status, and success.
You hustle, if you do, to “make it” at any cost, not to celebrate God’s majesty. It is only against this religious backdrop, one of unacknowledged grieving, that we can begin to fathom how it could seem obvious for elite knowledge workers to compete to be able to work 70 to 100 hours each week.
The Catholic view: Is work just a paid job?
If the career, like the calling, is to be central to human life, then it would make sense that Google would want to cover employees’ needs for food, play, and relaxation at Google headquarters to keep employees at the workplace for as long as possible in order to ensure that they’re as productive as possible. But what if work isn’t a career but is just a paid job in a “wage-based society,” one that requires you to sell your labor time, and so also your freedom, in exchange for a wage?
Challenging the sweet privilege of working, the “Catholic view of work” sees work, while not the worst sort of thing one could do, as middling and bearably tolerable at best.
To see the ostensible class differences between these rival conceptions of the good life, consider the history of the labor movement from 1880-1930. In the late nineteenth century, labor pushed successfully for an eight-hour workday. Then in the 1920s, it won a 5-day workweek. Finally, in the early 1930s, many favored a 30-hour workweek partly as a way of spreading out the so-called “lump of labor” thought—correctly or not—to be available during the height of the Great Depression. But the 30-hour workweek proposal lost, and what won out instead was the “right to work” a “full-time job,” a legacy that is still very much with us.
For these union workers, manual labor was often physically demanding and work itself repetitive, alienating, and, above all, burdensome. Consequently, their reasons for working were not intrinsic but instrumental: they did so in order to support their families, take part in religious worship, and appreciate their leisure. Since working for a wage curtailed their freedom, they sought freedom to do as they pleased outside of work. For them, however satisfying work could be, what was best in life occurred in leisure. Work was no more and no less than a paid job and, as such, was not central to their social identities.
Which will it be: “Protestant” or “Catholic”?
Given these clashing pictures of work, “the Protestant” can imagine nothing better to do with his or her life than “cool,” “interesting,” or “impactful” work while “the Catholic” can imagine plenty of things that leisure could afford him or her.
Much of modern culture is grounded on the “Protestant” view that you will find out who you are, why you’re here, and how to leave a mark on the world through the work you do.
But could that view be asking too much, not to say also the wrong things, of work? If so, then it may be time to question whether our unconsidered, single-minded, “Protestant” devotion to working is, in fact, the best sort of thing we can do with our lives. If, flirting for a moment with “the Catholic view,” we learned how to take our time with life, to dwell in the intervals between efforts and between thoughts, then we may discover how much vaster and how gapingly beautiful reality truly is.