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The Myth of Productivity in America

Personal Perspective: How capitalism may have turned you into a "workaholic."

Do you always, or almost always, feel like you must be doing something productive? Do you feel a need to be productive that gets in the way of your relaxation? That you can’t relax when there’s work to be done? That your work is everything? That even when it’s your day off, you are still thinking about work? If so, you may be a production perfectionist.

This post exposes the latter form of work compulsion for what it truly is: an irrational and self-defeating ideological myth propagated by capitalist, free-market cultures such as the United States by which you may be destroying your potential for happiness.

In the United States, human worth and dignity tend to be equated with productivity. In this materialistic, money-driven culture, if you happen to be unemployed, elderly, handicapped, poor, or otherwise unable to contribute to the gross domestic product, whether permanently or temporarily, there is a foul odor of being negatively judged by others as second-rate, useless, burdensome, or otherwise deficient in value.

While it is politically incorrect to launch such a character assassination in polite company, the judgment and its attendant negative feeling are beneath the veneer of political correctness. Indeed, feeling guilty about one’s age is not rare among the elderly (who may perceive their “shelf life” as nearing expiration) and the feeling of a worker who has been laid off often has as much to do with the sense of loss of worth and dignity as a person as it does with the brute fact that one needs the money.

The source of such anxiety is consistently the same. It is the ideology of productivity as conferring human worth and dignity.

In a culture where productivity is king, there is an inherent push toward being as productive as possible. So, it is not surprising that, according to a recent survey, nearly half of employed Americans consider themselves "workaholics." In America, work is the royal route to productivity, which is what confers value. The more you work, the more productive you are, and hence the more worthy of respect you become.

This is not to denounce doing meaningful work or making great contributions to society through dedicated, hard work. Nor is it to deny that we need to work to put food on the table and cover our costs of living. Instead, it calls attention to the self- and other-deprecating nature of the reasoning that feeds a compulsion to work that, on the surface, seeks happiness, one’s own and that of others, but instead erodes the very prospect for happiness and leads to unmitigated and self-defeating stress.

At the root of such a work compulsion is a form of achievement perfectionism that may appropriately be called productivity perfectionism. Productivity perfectionists do not just prefer to excel at what they do; they demand it. Consequently, the workplace in America reinforces "workaholic" tendencies because it is demanded that workers are abundantly productive, or else they join the ranks of the unworthy.

This demand is communicated through enculturation and reinforced ad nauseam by production managers who reward unrelenting work habits and look down upon those who fail to meet up.

The key premise that propels such "workaholism" among workers thus goes something like this: “I must always produce; the more, the better; never falling down on the job, always managing to keep it up.” This demand is absolutistic, leaving no room for failure to be productive. Indeed, the very possibility of falling short of achieving one’s mark leads to intense anxiety:

  • "I must always produce; the more, the better; never falling down on the job, always managing to keep it up."
  • "If I fail to achieve my mark at work, I am a failure, a loser, a nothing, a worthless reject."

As such, if you do happen to fall short, your anxiety slips into depression:

  • "I must always produce, the more, the better; never falling down on the job, always managing to keep it up."
  • "If I fail to achieve my mark, I am a failure, a loser, a worthless reject."
  • "It has happened: I failed!"
  • "So, I am now just what I feared all along: a failure, a loser, a nothing, a worthless reject!"

This is the vicious, never-ending credo of millions of lives lived under incredible stress.

The survey mentioned earlier based its findings on three criteria: worrying about work on one’s days off, feeling too busy to take a vacation, and checking emails immediately upon waking. These three characteristics are perhaps the tip of the iceberg, but they are clear symptoms of productivity perfectionism quietly doing its disturbing dirty work without your knowledge and awareness.

My purpose here is to bring such knowledge and awareness to your attention. Beware that you may be a cog in a production line that uses and grades you and socializes you to do the same to others, according to the amount of productivity.

If you want to get off this production line, it is important to give up its major premise: that you must produce to have and maintain your value. You are not a cog but a person with the capacity for self-determination. Your worth and dignity are, therefore, independent of your productivity. You are not what you produce. You are an end-in-itself, a locus of intrinsic value that cannot be shed by losing your job, growing old, becoming handicapped, or otherwise prevented from operating at full capacity on the human productivity assembly line your culture has framed (concocted).

There are better (less stressful, more enjoyable) ways to live. You can forge relationships with other human beings off the assembly line. Colleagues, co-workers, and employees are persons, not equipment or commodities.

There is marvelous beauty in the innocence of a child and the smile on your beloved. It is far too cliched to bid you smell the proverbial roses, for that is not enough. Roses lose their bloom when you are tied to the ideological assembly line by a productivity demand that American culture has imposed and you have credulously accepted.

You can set yourself free and live truly in the land of the free by exposing this myth and giving it up.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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