Carolyn Chen on Work Pray Code

Carolyn Chen on Work Pray Code

By Carolyn Chen

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Silicon Valley is known for its lavish perks, intense work culture, and spiritual gurus. Work Pray Code explores how tech companies are bringing religion into the workplace in ways that are replacing traditional places of worship, blurring the line between work and religion and transforming the very nature of spiritual experience in modern life.

Your book argues that work is replacing religion in America. What do you mean by that?

CC: The last 40 years have shown a decline in religious affiliation and an increase in the number of hours that professionals are devoting to work. Fifty years ago, white-collar professionals were looking to fulfill their needs for identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose through organizations outside the workplace, such as their churches, temples, synagogues, or neighborhood associations. These days, work consumes so much of their lives, it’s in work that they find their identity, their belonging, their source of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in life. Workplaces have become the new “faith communities” of the highly skilled in knowledge-industry hubs like Silicon Valley.

How and why are tech companies bringing spirituality into the workplace?

CC: Tech companies are concerned with the spiritual care and development of their employees, concerns that we associate with people like priests and pastors. People in human resources describe their jobs as “nourishing souls,” “bringing wholeness,” as well as “awakening” the “authentic selves” of their employees. They bring Buddhist-inspired spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation, and integrate Buddhist words such as “compassion” and “enlightenment” into their work culture. Many in management consider spirituality in the workplace to be a competitive advantage. When workers can bring their “whole selves” to work, they give their whole selves to work. Tech companies find that when their employees align their work with the deepest parts of themselves, it’s a win-win situation—tech workers feel more fulfilled and the company’s bottom line increases.

Is this just Silicon Valley or are other American companies bringing spirituality into the workplace?

CC: Companies all around the country have adopted management practices that encourage their elite workers to align their souls with the mission of the company. Companies like Aetna and McKinsey have brought in mindfulness and meditation. Fortune 500 companies all now have elements that are basic to religious organizations—a mission, values, ethics, an origin story, and even a charismatic leader. Words that we once associated with life outside of work—“authenticity,” “purpose,” and “passion,” are now corporate buzzwords. For a certain sector of elite workers in America, there is no social institution that is more invested in their fulfilment than their workplaces.

Why are professionals looking to work rather than religion to meet their social and spiritual needs?

CC: In last forty years, we’ve witnessed significant transformations in work and organized religion. Companies have reconfigured work among their high-skilled employees in response to the large-scale economic transformations such as the shift to a post-industrial/knowledge economy and the rise of global capitalism. As a result, companies have become more demanding of time and energy from professionals. But they’ve also made work more rewarding and fulfilling in order to elicit the full investment of their high-skilled employees. They’ve done so by giving them more pay and autonomy and investing in their professional and personal development. They’ve curated company cultures that borrow from the language and practices of non-economic institutions like family and religion where love and devotion have no bounds.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed a decline in religious affiliation and participation in the last forty years. This is not an isolated trend, but part of a larger trend in the decline in civic participation—Americans withdrawing not only from religious communities, but things like neighborhood associations, sports leagues, political clubs, and so on. Among these, religious organizations have always been the most popular.

As a result of the expansion of work and the decline of religion, many American professionals are looking to the institution of work to give them identity, belonging, meaning and fulfilment—social and spiritual benefits that Americans used to get from organizations outside of the company. This is evident in the language professionals use to describe their relationships to work. They aren’t joining churches and temples anymore, but they say they are “joining” companies.

Isn’t it a good thing that people are finding fulfilment and belonging at work? Why should we care that people get this at work rather than through religious communities or other civic organizations?

CC: While many tech workers feel fulfilled and “whole” because of work, others at the margins of the tech industry are living broken lives. There is a social cost to what I call “Techtopia,” a society where work is the highest form of fulfilment. The problem with Techtopia is that work monopolizes the resources of a community—its time, energy, money, and devotion. As a result, people disinvest in other vital social institutions—families, faith communities, neighborhoods, and political institutions. Work becomes the alpha institution, around which all other institutions must submit and cater to in order to get a share of the community’s resources. I observed that in Silicon Valley, schools, churches, and small businesses must service tech’s imperatives in order to survive. For instance, tech workers don’t have time to meditate at the temple because of work, so the temple brings meditation to work. But meditation teachers need to conform meditation to tech’s goals by removing Buddhist ethical teachings and reduce meditation to a productivity practice.

Techtopia works against collective human flourishing in two ways. First, it impoverishes our non-economic institutions and traditions that offer alternative, richer and fuller pathways to fulfilment than the “theocracy of work.” Second, Techtopia creates an inequality of spirit. When a society’s social, material, and spiritual rewards are monopolized by work, those who don’t have the right skills, education, age, and race get locked out from living “productive,” “fulfilling,” and “meaningful” lives.

How do we break the “theocracy of work”?

CC: I think the time management and work-life pundits have it wrong. We don’t achieve that mythical state of work-life balance through individual solutions of managing time better, reprioritizing our lives, or even changing jobs. That’s because for those of us who live in places like Silicon Valley, the entire economy of social, spiritual, and material rewards is organized around work. If you’re living in this system, individual solutions just don’t work. In my study, the people who resisted the vortex of work did so because they were intensely devoted to a community outside of work, such as a faith community. The way to break the theocracy of work is to invest in and build our non-work institutions—our faith communities, neighborhoods, families, and civic associations—that can give us a sense of identity, community, value, and meaning that is apart from our labor. We can stop worshiping work by creating other institutions that are worthy of our worship. Flourishing civic institutions are the foundation to the work-life balance we’re all shooting for.

Carolyn Chen, a sociologist, is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (Princeton) and the coeditor of Sustaining Faith Traditions. She lives in Kensington, California. Website