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Why you are tempted to be a workaholic: The underlying causes for our secret embrace of overwork

Humans are inherently social beings. As such social interactions shape the way we think and act; they structure our world. Social norms are one part of this process and have a decisive influence on our lives. After all, social norms tell us what is accepted by society and what is not, they are the unwritten laws of social groups. “Hustle culture” is a societal phenomenon that relies heavily on social norms to perpetuate its existence. Yet, while only a few social circles openly embrace this idea by its name, many underlying ideals of hustle culture (such as working long hours) are positively perceived throughout society. The stark contrast between such covert norms and present-day political developments, like the push for a four-day workweek, poses several questions: Are both these views reconcilable? What is the origin of these phenomena?

Covert appraisal

Before we can explore the origins of these developments in detail we should first define what we are talking about. Hustle culture” is generally understood as a societal trend valuing relentless work and the pursuit of success. This term is rarely used positively. People think of it as toxic, related to burnout, and materialistic. Few serious people use the term hustle culture to describe something appealing. Yet, even though the societal perception of those people openly following hustle culture is generally critical, I argue that their core ideas – of extremely hard and excessive work – are accepted throughout our society.

To make this clearer, I propose a simple question: If you were working way too much – would you openly share it? And would you share with the same openness that you started smoking again or indulge in other unhealthy behaviours? Some of the things we know to be bad, we would rather keep to ourselves – others we share. This phenomenon I would call “positive stigma”; we know behaviour to be unhealthy, yet still we associate it with something normatively positive. In a way one might say that we idealise the suffering and sacrifice of some things, but not of others. But why?

Why does this “covert appraisal” happen?

Explanations for root causes of cultural phenomena like this can never be final or exhaustive. Instead, any explanation is always merely one possible perspective. In this article, I will focus on two such theories. Overwork as a result of ideology and overwork as a result of the systemic characteristics of our economy.

Part 1: Overwork as a religious ideology

One possible explanation for “hustle culture” emerges from one of the roots of Western thought, Christianity. Historically, a lot of Western life and thereby culture revolved around Christian ideas and traditions. Thus, it would almost be surprising if it did not help shape our societies’ way of thinking. Different people have characterised Christian moral in very different ways, yet here I will focus on Weber’s analysis.

Max Weber's work on the Protestant work ethic underscores how certain Christian values, particularly within Protestantism, have shaped a culture of hard work and discipline as expressions of moral virtue. This manifests itself through general concepts in Christianity such as asceticism. Asceticism idealises values of self-discipline and abstention from indulgence. This ethic, which emerged from a religious imperative to glorify God through diligent work, has notably influenced the development of capitalism, extending far into people’s work life and emphasizing hard work as a form of moral virtue. Over time, the religious roots of this work ethic became less and less significant, but the ethic itself became ingrained in Western culture and reflected in our social norms. Thereby, upholding an overwork ethic where relentless productivity is celebrated as a secular virtue, decoupled from its original spiritual intentions.

The relationship Weber describes between hard work and asceticism is one we can also observe in cultural movements tangent to "hustling". For example, people in communities like FI/RE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) aim to retire at 30 years old, through a mix of hard work and frugal living conditions. The reflection of religious thinking in hustle culture goes much further than just the same values. For example, how they imagine retirement.

A notable feature of Christianity is its reliance on the afterlife to provide happiness: All earthly suffering is justified in light of this final salvation. This idea seems a bit odd these days – might people have realised the awkwardness of far-away promises? No, to my disappointment, early retirement movements seem to make a similar case to Christianity: Sacrificing one’s twenties, in the form of hard and long working hours with no rest, is justified through a greater good, one final salvation: Retirement. It does feel like one big materialist rephrasing of Christianity sometimes, no?

Of course, the connection between today’s cultural phenomena and previous ideas is only correlative and not necessarily causal. Yet still, it is quite interesting to note how those who would laugh at the argument of a priest are in awe of the wise words of some “finance bro”. It shows the fading of Christianity as a religion did not necessitate the fading of all its norms. Indeed, especially now, in secular societies, we should be aware of our ideas’ origins. While some might be useful, others might harm us.

Part 2: The structure of our economy

The previous explanation, while important in its own way, entirely neglects the conditions of “the real world”. A second potential explanation examines how the underlying material conditions of our society shape our discourse. Marxists understand this relationship as the base influencing the superstructure. The base of our society is its economic system, capitalism, which treats labour as a commodity to be traded. Through this, our economic system makes workers compete with one another, optimise themselves for the market, and rewards those most productive, thus reinforcing the notion that our primary purpose is to serve capital. Here, the cultural norms that encourage an overwork culture can be understood as a superstructure complimenting and maintaining the economic base. This perpetuates a cycle where work not only becomes central to our lives but is also posited as a primary source of identity and virtue. Serving capital is our purpose. (read more about that in this article)

A stark contrast: The four-day workweek

In the past years, discourse about the idea of a four-day workweek has become increasingly serious. Major trials in the UK and Iceland have had overwhelmingly positive results, with 86% of companies in Britain planning to continue with four work days after the end of the trials. The clash between glorifying overwork and advocating for fewer workdays is striking. Why might this be? And is it enough to relieve us from our serfdom?

Work is at the centre of our lives – but none of us actually want that, right? The recent push toward less work is an expression of exactly this frustration. It is a countermovement to the dominant cultural norms. Does this mean we solved the problem though? That’s unlikely. As we examined previously, overwork is to some extent the result of underlying economic forces. These forces are still very much present here, even if we spend less time at work. Therefore, one might argue that while the four-day workweek is certainly an improvement, it is merely a symptomatic treatment, that ignores the underlying problems. Moreover, given the seeming deeper lying roots of our ideological commitment to an often unhealthy work ethic, the ideological differences of this new movement are commendable but at this stage improbable to be enough to change us.

This might seem somewhat cynical – I agree. No doubt, the four-day workweek is a step in the right direction. However, we must avoid being satisfied with such small wins and instead continue to push for bigger, more transformative improvements. What do you think could be such a fundamental transformation that it relieves us from our economic and greater ideological chains? Share your opinion in the comment section of this article.

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