The Cult of Career and the Shalom of God

The new mid-life crisis is the quarter-life crisis. What used to take twenty-five years of employment now just takes two or three. I am both shocked by that claim and sympathetic. As a millennial myself, I understand the feeling.

But what happened? Are we softer than earlier generations? Do we need to just get over ourselves? Or is modern work and life more demanding than earlier times? There are undoubtedly many explanations for this trend, but one worth considering is the cult of career.


The Cult of Career

A few years back, my Mom found a box with my grade-school assignments. One from second grade included a list of what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Masseuse and marine biologist, naturally.) In middle school, I remember taking career and personality tests and perusing the U.S. News and World Report’s annual university rankings. I was only in the eighth grade, but these activities felt decisive for my future. And I would continue in this mode for more than a decade.

If you’re a millennial working in San Francisco, I’m sure you can relate. On the surface, school was about math quizzes and essay tests, but deep down we believed we were determining our future. We were constantly asked and answering the deep, existential question: What will I be when I grow up? And we weren’t supposed to answer that question with virtues and relationships. (I will be honest, kind, just, merciful, strong. I will be a friend, a lover, a parent, a citizen.) No, the only terms of identity open to us were career-oriented. Our future worth was entirely tied to our work.

Flash forward a decade or two, and we can see the fruit of this focus. After being discipled in the worship of career from early childhood, most young people find that work doesn’t provide near the depth of meaning they were promised. And this after incurring tremendous school debt, moving cities multiple times, leaving behind friendships, putting off marriage and family, and avoiding most commitments to community and place. All in the name of career.

Having left everything, though, they have nothing to fall back on for fulfillment. And, to make matters worse, idolizing work leads to over-work, leaving little margin to pursue anything else on the side. Most young adults complain that they don’t have time for relationships and recreation. Between their job and basic responsibilities, they’re lucky if they can eat a decent meal and sleep eight hours a night.

No wonder burnout is an increasing problem among Americans in their twenties and thirties. Defined by the World Health Organization as a “state of vital exhaustion,” one journalist writes that burnout is “not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.” American adults are giving everything they’ve got to their work, but finding career is a harsh master. There’s always more to do. There’s always another rung in the ladder. Even when you take a break, you can always hear your to-do list yelling at you in the background.


A few years back, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen wrote about what’s changed:

In previous generations, depression was likely to result from internal conflicts between what we want to do and what authority figures – parents, teachers, institutions – wish to prevent us from doing. But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals. In “The Weariness of the Self” (1998), an influential study of modern depression, the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg argues that in the liberated society which emerged during the 1960s, guilt and obedience play less of a role in the formation of the self than the drive to achieve. The slogan of the “attainment society” is “I can” rather than “I must”.

Last week, we began a new sermon series at Citizens called “Cultivate: Vocation, Work, and the Gospel.” Over the next six weeks, we’ll cover a lot of ground. But in C.J.’s opening sermon, he did a fantastic job considering the story of the Bible and putting our work in its proper place. In light of the cult of career, I’d like to emphasize two biblical convictions.

Career can’t be everything.

Despite what our culture of work might say, our flourishing (or shalom) is not found exclusively in our work. Neither is it found exclusively in everything non-career, so that our work just gets in the way of shalom. On Sunday, CJ defined shalom as where “labor, worship, and family coexist in perfect harmony together.” A flourishing life involves all three. If one is diminished, our humanity is diminished.

But the cult of career leaves no room for relationships and worship, because career is everything. When something has to give, it’s rarely work. The Bible gives us a new relationship with career, which both dignifies work as our humble service to God, others, and the earth and delimits work, keeping career from encroaching on the rest of life.

As CJ taught, this framework keeps us from both idolizing our work and being idle in our work (HT: this book). We need to ask ourselves, are we over-identifying with our work (or under-identifying with it)?

Career can’t be first.

CJ also explained that we can’t work our way into shalom. The gospel teaches us that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works. For work to stay in its proper place, it must follow our relationship with God in Christ. He has work for us to do, and it is exciting and important, but that work must spring from our experience of his grace (cf. Ephesians 2:8-11).

Listen to psychoanalyst Josh Cohen again. He believes the solution to burnout is found in the therapist’s room, but it sounds a lot like life in Christ to me.

Burnout is not simply a symptom of working too hard. It is also the body and mind crying out for an essential human need: a space free from the incessant demands and expectations of the world. In the consulting room, there are no targets to be hit, no achievements to be crossed off.

In the church, there aren’t any targets to hit either or achievements to accomplish. But not because we’re ignoring them, but because everything necessary has already been achieved in Christ. There’s no more work to be done. With that settled, let’s get to work.

Dave Ainsworth