Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study.

This week the Pew Research Center released a study looking at the attitudes of contemporary American parents toward their own lives and those of their kids. Among other things, the survey provides an interesting supplement to the themes of my Sunday column on declining birthrates and last week’s newsletter on “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and the angst of the American upper class. You can see both issues illuminated in the way American moms and dads experience child rearing and imagine a future for their kids.

The question of upper-class angst surfaces in what Pew reveals about class differences in parental experience. When the survey asks parents to assess their degree of worry about various dangers, from depression to bullying to substance abuse to trouble with the cops, for every danger there is a pretty clear class division. Whether the issue is mental health (the most common concern, notably), kidnapping, teenage pregnancy or any other risk, lower-income parents are more worried — sometimes much more worried — about their kids than upper-income parents.

But ask American parents whether they find parenting “rewarding” and “enjoyable,” and suddenly the class difference runs the other way: The same lower-income parents who are more stressed by potential dangers are also more likely to report that they enjoy and appreciate being mothers and fathers all the time, while upper-income parents are more likely to qualify their appreciation. (Notably, there’s a parallel pattern along racial lines, with African American and Hispanic parents reporting more enjoyment than white parents, and substantially more than Asian American parents.)

If you were inclined to flatter the meritocracy, you might speculate that this difference reflects the greater creative enjoyment that professional-class Americans take in their working lives, such that the pivot to the more quotidian and repetitive work of parenting feels a little less pleasurable than it might otherwise.

More harshly, you might speculate that what undermines upper-class parental enjoyment is often the same force undermining the fictional (but all too real) marriage in “Fleishman” — the nagging voice that meritocracy installs in the back of your consciousness, constantly asking if you’re doing well enough, working hard enough, keeping up with the competition adequately to maintain your position and your edge. Which in the case of parenthood boils down to either the fear that parenting time is taking you away from professional obligations or that you aren’t doing enough to help your kids with their professional ascent: the anxiety that too much chilled-out playtime, too little zealous enrichment for your blessed progeny, is going to yield the great fear of all meritocrats — the dreaded regression to the mean.

Is this fear of material-financial-professional disappointment mostly confined to the upper and upper-middle classes, to the Fleishmans and their would-be competitors, or does it haunt the rest of American society as well? Here the Pew data offers mixed evidence. On the one hand, most American parents say it’s more important for their kids to be honest and hardworking and helpful to others than for them to be “ambitious,” the keystone value of the striving upper class.

On the other hand, when you ask them to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being “financially independent” or happy in their work to their getting married and having kids, finances and jobs win out easily — by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either “extremely” or “very” important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.

I honestly find this result a little difficult to believe. As a normative matter, I can understand rating work and family equally or treating financial independence as the “extremely” important precursor to the “very” important hope of starting a family. But I don’t understand how almost 80 percent of parents (the subset of Americans committed to family formation!) could possibly rate family life — and with it, their own hope of grandkids — as only “somewhat” or “not at all” important for their offspring. These results seem so dramatically at variance with my own experience of parental culture (across lines of class, politics and religion) that I wonder whether some quirk of question design is influencing the numbers.

I also have a slightly skeptical reaction to Pew’s results when they ask parents whether it matters to them that their kids have religious and political beliefs similar to their own. Only 35 percent of respondents say that shared religious beliefs are “extremely” or “very” important — OK, in a country with declining religiosity, maybe that makes sense. But only 16 percent say it’s important for their kids to inherit similar political beliefs; does that really seem plausible in a country as afflicted by polarization as our own? A country where soaring numbers of partisans say they’d be disappointed at merely acquiring a daughter-in-law or son-in-law of a different political party? Maybe most people still feel that they should say this; I’m somewhat doubtful that they mean it.

But if you accept these results and combine them, you get an emphasis on work and finances over family, religion and politics that seems extremely relevant to the debate over the developed world’s declining birthrates.

A key question in that debate is whether the general fertility decline reflects what people actually want or whether it’s being somehow imposed, either by economic conditions, cultural expectations or some social or technological disruption. There’s a reasonable case, made by the demographer Lyman Stone among others, that modern people’s desire for kids hasn’t dropped as much as one might think, that if more parents achieved what they consider the ideal family size, they’d usually have two or three kids and overall births wouldn’t be dropping so dramatically. In which case we should be worrying about the external obstacles to desired fertility, whether that means economic forces like the expense of parenting or some cultural force — like the crisis of heterosexual pairing-off that’s driving down rates of marriage, dating and sex.

But the Pew data suggests a way that economic and cultural forces can unite to shape the way that people set priorities for adulthood. It’s possible, in this reading of the evidence, to grow up with the same theoretical aspirations for marriage and family as past generations, but also receive a strong cultural message that everything a different society might regard as fundamentally bigger than your job — religious faith and political ideology as well as love, marriage, kids, grandkids — is actually secondary, and however many children you want on paper, the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.

One term for this worldview is “workism,” defined by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson in 2019 as a quasi-religious commitment to fulfillment through intense professional commitment (and discussed at length by Stone and the sociologist Laurie DeRose in a 2021 Institute for Family Studies paper on global fertility).

You can interpret the workist worldview as meritocracy gone wild, its values spreading beyond the overeducated upper class to infuse and convert society as a whole. Or you can interpret it through the lens of Daniel Bell’s famous 1970s analysis of capitalism’s “cultural contradictions” — as an example of consumer capitalism’s logic working itself out to an ultimately self-undermining conclusion (because without marriages and kids there won’t be enough consumers soon enough).

Either way, in the Pew data, workism looks unmistakable and powerful — looming above religious commitment, political allegiance and even reproductive self-interest when it comes to what American parents want, or think they should want, for their kids.


My colleague David Wallace-Wells on the crisis of Britain’s National Health Service.

Stephen White on a Roman Catholic cardinal’s path toward liberal Protestantism.

Armin Rosen on the invisible success of Columbia University’s Lee Bollinger.

Slavoj Žižek on “Tár,” art and cancel culture.

Ravi Shankar interviews Glenn Loury.

Colin Kidd on Samuel Adams and Jan. 6.

This Week in Decadence

“It’s been said that all art is modern art. At the time, Renaissance painting was recognized as modern. Ruskin wrote about ‘modern artists’ like Turner. Art nouveau can be roughly translated as modern art. So why do I think mid-century modern is different?

Even when I was young (in the 1960s), art nouveau architecture looked old fashioned. In contrast, buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe still look right up to date, even though we are seeing them through the same 70-year gap as I viewed art nouveau as a child. The International Style has remained the dominant architectural style. More recently, even clothing styles seem to have stopped changing. Why?

In retrospect, the 1950s seem like a pivotal decade. The Boeing 707, nuclear power plants, satellites orbiting Earth, glass walled skyscrapers, etc., all seemed radically different from the world of the 1890s. In contrast, airliners of the 2020s look roughly like the 707, we seem even less able to build nuclear power plants than in the 1960s, we seem to have a harder time getting back to the moon than going the first time, and we still build boring glass walled skyscrapers.

Now think about art. Abstract expressionism seems radically different from the painting styles of the nineteenth century. But it also represented the end of a road, the end of visual experimentation. Art had been moving toward abstraction for a long time, and once it arrived there was no place to go in a visual sense. After the 1950s, the important innovations in painting were ideas, not visual styles. And since there are an infinite number of possible ideas, there is no dominant style after abstract expressionism.

So both engineers and artists ran out of ideas at about the same time. More specifically, engineers ran out of macro ideas, and artists ran out of ideas for visual experimentation.”

— Scott Sumner, “The Eternal Modern” (Jan. 23)

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