Centering our lives around work is breaking our ability to connect with each other

Millennials are centering their lives around work — deriving their life’s meaning through it, “turning to their employers for community”, and turning all the non-work parts of their lives into extensions of it. It’s driving the emergent burnout culture we’re seeing in our generation. Meanwhile, we’re a lonelier society now than we used to be. We know social connection is critical to our health and happiness, but we are at a loss for how to find it. Perhaps it’s not just because we face financial instability and a performance culture. It’s because the framework we use to model our own lives, and that structures all the tools we use to live, is the framework of business productivity.

Many cringe at the contemporary use of the word “communities” to describe loosely affiliated groups online — people who happen to use an app, for example, but scarcely know each other. The word “community” has become a broad stand-in that often really refers only to shared traits or behaviors — not connection. It can mean “people who do the same thing” (like running or using Twitter), or “members of a demographic group”. The words “sharing” and “connecting” have become similarly impersonal and meaningless. Connections are fundamentally two-sided — a link between two nodes, two people, both engaged. Sharing, too, involves two — perhaps equals, or a giver and a receiver. But the digital tools we turn to seeking connection often shape our behavior into something else. We end up “producing” when we’re trying to connect, by doing what those tools ask of us. Our “shares” are one-sided — really just broadcasts to our abstract public of followers. Our connections are an audience, not a community. We perform alone.

Tons of my friends struggle with Instagram in this way. They use it as their primary online medium to connect with people — but find that it makes them feel underperforming, competitive, and distant. Because its “sharing” is lopsided — centered on productivity and performance, not connection or compassion. (For example, consider the imbalance between a carefully-wrought, captioned image post vs. the non-committal weightlessness of likes, or even comments, as a response.) It’s no surprise. “Social” tools like Instagram that we use to connect are designed in businesses to drive business performance and growth — so they mold us to the frame of business productivity. By contrast, old tools of connection that created compassion — institutions like the church, or tight-knit neighborhood communities — were born, if not “designed”, through such a different set of motivators.

It’s not just the quietly performance-driven structure of apps that isolates us as solo performers — as individual nodes in a productive whole, rather than members of a whole network greater than the sum of its parts. In deriving our meaning through work, we are following the framework of what the workplace values in other parts of our lives. We passively base our behavior in all parts of life on whatever model we place at the center of it — as its purpose.

So, today, we build structures of value around the central aim of productivity throughout life — in place of following the framework of fading, traditional institutions originally built as communities, valuing compassion or some other shared purpose (be it religious or otherwise). That results in what seem to be “communities” outside work, but where members don’t really have ties of compassion to one another. Our ties are built around a shared productive goal — like mutually seeking individual fitness — as a near-sacred aim.

Perhaps we must explore what our lives and relationships look like in the absence of the frame of work, to discover new frames that support us and genuinely bring us together. What do our connections look like if we eschew the element of productivity? In a world where “sharing” is performance, must connection be built only privately? And if we could do nothing of productive value — what would we do? What matters then?

Finally — if we are able to reorient our connections to others around compassion, not productivity — what might we reconsider about the values of our work?