Has The Collapse Of Religion Forced Us To Seek Meaning Through Work?

by Lo Furneaux for Freelancer Club

More people than ever before have chosen to centre their lives around their careers. Previously, this role would have been filled by community institutions like religion, sports or even the pub! As our jobs place increasingly more demands on our time; these outlets are falling by the wayside, leaving only the office to provide us with the sense of meaning we crave. And now, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken this from us as well! As we attempt to make sense of our lives and seek direction, could the answer be found in freelancing?

Humans have an inherent need to belong. However, a sense of belonging involves more than simply spending time with other people. It is hinged upon gaining the acceptance, attention and emotional support that we crave, and providing these same things to other like-minded people. Traditionally these were often provided by religious groups, giving structure to people’s lives and a shared set of beliefs to identify with; as well as a ready-made community of like-minded people. People flocked to youth groups, sports teams and activity classes for something to do and volunteered their time for religious causes as a way to give back. But if religion held such a prominent place in people’s day to day lives, what happened? According to Europe’s Young Adults and Religion study conducted by universities in France and England, more than three-quarters of Europe’s young people have no interest in religion, and church attendance in the UK is at an all-time low. So, what happened to our safe place and where did everybody go?

The simple answer is the office.

Automation and outsourcing cut the number of available jobs. As the jobs became more scarce, people became more expendable to companies. This economic shift from manufacturing towards customer-facing work allowed the norms of the service industry to take over the nation’s working culture. People were now on show, required to work with a smile and consider their coworkers as family; while companies slashed wages, cut benefits and extended working hours. Businesses provided way less whilst expecting far more, as they knew their employees would simply put up with it since there was nowhere else to go.

These changes required people to spend every waking hour at work and so the office began to take over the place in our lives held by community institutions. Religious beliefs and community activities were swiftly replaced by company values, office events and water cooler chats as the workplace became the centre of people’s lives. Back in the 1980s, if you put in long hours, devoted yourself to your job or pursued your career above everything, you would be branded a ‘Workaholic’ — a problem deemed so serious that it was frequently compared to alcohol addiction. But now, these traits are listed as desirable expectations in job adverts since society values people by their productivity.

A recent survey showed that 95% of teenagers ranked having a job they enjoy as their most important priority for adult life.

Millennial and Gen Z workers have grown up knowing that the majority of their lives will be spent working. Our occupation has become a way to identify ourselves to each other, our career choices forming personality traits. This has led us to believe that our work should make an impact. We want a meaningful vocation that contributes to society and provides us with an important sense of purpose. If we’re going to break our back working, it should surely be for a meaningful cause.

Unfortunately, the reality is a far cry from these expectations. The disconnect between our personal moral compasses and the demands of the modern workplace has never been wider, resulting in an all-time high in employee burnout. A recent survey by Indeed found that 52% of respondents were experiencing burnout (up from 43% pre-Covid) and 67% thought burnout had worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has forced us all to reconsider the role that our careers should play in our lives. For some, the lockdowns finally gave people the time to relearn the art of leisure and (spoiler alert) we’re not very good at it. We’ve all ingrained how important it is to be productive, so for any time we spend enjoying things, we have to spend an equal amount of time feeling guilty about it. And now remote working has allowed work to invade our lives more than ever, with over a ⅓ of the workforce working at home during the lockdowns last year. It’s never been easier for our bosses to take advantage of us! It has become painfully evident that our ability to work is what gives us worth to society; especially since the deaths of elderly and disabled people were deemed an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of the economy.

So what can we do?

Like many others, I took the plunge to go freelance at the start of the pandemic in May 2020. I was miserable, commuting 2 hours each way to a job in finance that I hated, fed up of wrestling with never-ending red tape and difficult management. Having spent my career working for other people, going freelance was a welcome change. Now, I don’t have to spend hours staring at spreadsheets that don’t interest me and can instead order my files the way that I want or stare at my cat while she sleeps.

Freelancing gives you the ability to be in control of your career. You get to choose the work you do, who it’s for and when you do it. Finally, at the helm of your own moral compass, you no longer need to worry about the workplace clashing with your ethics. Working for yourself allows you to embark on a career you truly care about; to pursue your passions.

While it can be hard to get out of the traditional 9–5 mindset, freelancing offers us the opportunity to find out how we work best. Maybe like me, you also live in a ground floor apartment next to a secondary school (other noisy venues are available) and find it much easier to work in the late afternoons/evenings when there just aren’t as many screaming children outside. Or maybe you’re one of those people who like to get up with the sunrise and finish work before anyone else has even taken their first sip of coffee. That early morning run might be just the thing you need to power you through the rest of your day, though personally, nothing sounds worse!

Now, while being in charge of your own destiny sounds empowering — working long hours by yourself is no fun and can often get lonely. Sometimes you need that all-important second opinion! Freelancing provides you with a ready-built community of like-minded people who are all eager to give you whatever advice you may be looking for — whether that’s brutally honest feedback or just that little bit of confirmation you needed that you are in fact doing a good job. Other freelancers understand better than anyone what it means to freelance and can often provide the support you may not even know you needed.

There are an infinite number of community support groups dedicated to helping you make the best of your freelance journey. They’ll help you find clients, learn new skills and network with other professionals. Sometimes, it can be hard to determine which of these groups is worth your time. The Freelancer Club is here to help you. Widen your portfolio with test shoots, learn new skills in the Freelance Academy and connect with other Freelancer Club members in your local area!

So… Can freelancing help you to find meaning?

Having a career that you enjoy and are passionate about are important factors in the search for meaning, but they’re not everything. We must try to avoid the tendency to define ourselves solely by the career we choose and instead find other worthwhile ways to be fulfilled. Freelancing can give you the time and space you need to take a breath and figure out what you want from your life. By putting yourself in control of your career, you also put yourself in control of your life — and after all, isn’t that what meaning is all about?

Photographer credits:

Image 1: Cottonbro
Image 2: Tara Winstead
Image 3: Lo Furneaux
Image 4: Fauxels

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