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Silicon Valley workers are turning away from organized religion and filling the void with work that gives them a sense of “belonging, identity, purpose and transcendence.” Workers who once sought meaning, morality and behavioral guidelines in religion are now finding those values at work instead.
As one commentator put it, “Meaning is the new money.” That quest for meaning leads workers to look for a sense of community in their work. In fact, research reports that 90% of people would willingly accept lower salaries if their work provided meaning.
Stressed tech workers find a form of spirituality in the office through sponsored mindfulness classes, speakers and retreats. Many large corporations invest in their employees’ spiritual well-being as part of their benefits package. Some big tech companies bring in meditation teachers, even beyond Silicon Valley; in fact, some 22% of US companies offer mindfulness practices to their employees.
“Asking Americans what gives their lives meaning, 34% answered ‘career,’ making work one of the most important sources of meaning to Americans, second only to family (at 69%).”
Many tech workers emphasize how difficult religious observance is given their tremendous workload. Religious people who live in Silicon Valley find that they have to be particularly observant to continue active participation.
“Most Fortune 500 companies have adopted key elements of religious organizations — a mission, values, practices, ethics, and an ‘origin story’.”
Tech engineers tend to be young, single, far from home, impressionable and vulnerable to the call of work. They spend all day at the office, socialize mostly with coworkers and believe in the sanctity of their work. Tech workers have faith in their output. Much as religions expect congregants to adhere to certain articles of faith, tech companies expect employees to believe in their mission statements.
“The ‘religious’ bonds that employees develop with their coworkers are similar to those of another institution that forges intimate ties: the family.”
Tech engineers work hard and, generally speaking, neglect self-care.
“In the past, human resources managed workers defensively by ‘protecting the company from its employees,’ as one person put it, by enforcing compliance. Now human resources ‘protects’ the company by caring for its most valuable assets, its high-skilled employees.”
“Growth requires care and nurturing of a living thing. You have to water it every day, not just tons of gallons all at once, and then you come back in six months. No. A little bit every day. It needs good soil and nutrition. It needs time.” (Hector Gomez, human resources professional)
Corporations sponsor meditation and training programs to help employees work more devotedly, not to help them hear the call of a higher power, though that might happen.
“Thinking of work as a form of ‘calling,’ ‘love’ and ‘service’ might get workers closer to their own enlightenment, but it also fulfills management’s desire to get an extra return on labor.”
The tech world renounces the “religious baggage” of religion, although that attitude can reduce Buddhist practices, such as meditation, to a commodity. Corporate America often crassly whitewashes Buddhism’s sacred religious teachings to boost workers’ productivity. Some companies hire only instructors who offer secular classes. This gives teachers an incentive to remove religious aspects from their lessons, so large firms will hire them. Meanwhile, prayer beads and incense have become meditation room decor. Some people incorrectly see Buddhism more as a philosophy or science than as a religion
To escape the “theocracy of work,” people must decide collectively to worship something else, something worth worshipping, such as family, community, civil society and religion. That’s not to say that society should abandon work. Rather, it should pour energy into the rest of people’s lives as well. As writer David Foster Wallace said, “There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
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Mindfulness in Silicon Valley: Is Work Becoming Religion?
Robert C. Martin
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