The Gray Flannel Soul

The absurdity of seeking God on the job


| May/June 1998


Back in the soul-dead 1980s, a seminar meant to "integrate the body, mind, and spirit at work" would have been laughed off the Dow, not to be confused with Tao. Yet the International Symposium on Spirituality and Business, held in Boston in March, attracted the best and the brightest of business thinkers and lecturers. Indeed, since the early '90s, when titles like The Corporate Mystic and True Work: The Sacred Dimension of Earning a Living began to hit the bookstores, corporations have begun scrambling to come to terms with the new spirituality. The World Bank has a 400-member study group called the Spiritual Unfoldment Society. Boeing and Merck have brought in a poet to feed the souls of meaning-deprived executives. And Marketplace Ministries of Dallas has placed freelance chaplains at 132 companies in 38 states.

British sociologist Charles Handy believes that the corporate environment is a natural place to look at questions of meaning because, as he writes in The Hungry Spirit (Broadway Books, 1997), "We need the chance, in our work, not just in our leisure, to discover some of the truth about ourselves." And, on the surface, it certainly sounds appealing. Most jobs these days are rarely as satisfying as corporate-euphoric magazines like Fast Company make them sound. Even the coolest technogods struggle with 80-hour workweeks, impossible deadlines, and the ever-looming threat of downsizing. That's why so many workers long for creative expression and spiritual sustenance to fill the void.

There's just one problem: It's not at all clear that individual soul searching, much less company programs that help employees discover "the truth" about themselves will change exploitative corporate behavior. By overlooking the difference between community organizations and for-profit enterprises, many progressive business leaders ignore the oppressive power dynamics inherent in corporate culture. While searching for meaning is laudable, extending the quest to the workplace glosses over the real pressure companies put on employees.

Take the need to juggle work and family. Many a feminist has argued for family-friendly corporate policies: flextime, parental leave, job sharing. But as sociologist Arlie Hochschild points out in The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (Metropolitan Books, 1997), even when a company offers flexible policies, most employees don't take advantage of them, and not just because they're worried about layoffs or are strapped for cash. At least for middle-class professionals, work has become the source of rewards, emotional support, friendships, community feeling. More disturbing, they tend to buy into the workaholic pace, blaming themselves or family obligations instead of managers who expect ever-higher productivity if they can't keep up. "Essentially, the neighborhood has gone to work," Hochschild says in an interview with Mother Jones (May/June 1997). "Corporate engineers have looked at how women are with each other, borrowing the best tips from female neighborhood culture and then transporting them back into the bosom of capitalism. They've feminized capitalism. You have to marvel at such corporate engineering, and then you have to watch it like a hawk because it's stealing family time away from families.

It's no surprise that spiritual talk has crept into the discussion. The workplace has not only taken over the neighborhood, it has also begun to co-opt the function of churches: community support, transmission of values, affirmation that life has meaning beyond the narrow parameters of self-interest. Feminizing the macho business realm has it merits; yet a belief in "caring capitalism" gets it backwards. What if the conditions of the job itself are causing your existential angst? Can you really trust the boss, even if she's a caring person? What if the economy falters again? Most important, should we neglect family life just because work is the lesser hassle?

Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler and author of The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago, 1997), puts it bluntly: "Progressive corporations frighten me. They imply that social change is no longer under the purview of the left, which means there's nothing outside the corporation." Employees now "immerse themselves ever more deeply in the organization and the organization's goals." Bill Boisvert, in "Apostles of the New Entrepreneur," part of The Baffler's collection of essays Commodify Your Dissent (Norton, 1997), goes further: "Writers return again and again to images of 'family' to convey the totalizing character of social indoctrination in the new workplace. But does their mealy-mouthed rhetoric of conciliation, closeness, and self-fulfillment conceal a sinister new totalitarianism?"

Maybe some enlightened CEOs aren't so sinister. Yet it's obvious that for most people work is no Maslovian wonderland of peak experiences. In Yoga Journal (Dec. 1997), D. Patrick Miller, a small-press publisher, notes wryly, "Even if you work for one of the icons of conscious business, you'll still have to deal with the elements that make work Ö well, work."