“Work has replaced religion in Silicon Valley”

If the hour is with the great resignation in many professional sectors in the United States, the large American firms of Tech seem partly spared by this movement. But how to explain the attachment of skilled workers to their companies in Silicon Valley? An American sociologist, Carolyn Chen, provides an answer: according to her, work has become a religion for employees of large firms in the valley.

“Techtopia” is the term Carolyn Chen coined to describe the mode of organization that seems to prevail in the San Francisco Bay area, home to the world’s largest technology firms such as Apple, Facebook and Google. The “Techtopia” is a society in which skilled workers devote themselves entirely to their professions and their businesses, encouraged by their leaders, now ready to take charge of their spiritual well-being to increase their productivity.

Carolyn Chen is a sociologist of religions, professor at the University of Berkeley in California. She publishes in 2022 an essay entitled Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Priceton University Press, 2022). The result of a 6-year investigation, during which she spoke with a hundred tech workers in Silicon Valley, she agreed to share with us the main conclusions of her investigation. Interview.

When we imagine tech workers, we think of engineers more passionate about algorithmic sciences than religious rituals. Why do you describe Silicon Valley as one of the “most religious places in America”?

Carolyn Chen— This indeed seems counter-intuitive. Silicon Valley is reputed to be one of the least religious regions of the United States if we stick to the numbers: the rate of religious participation and the rate of attendance at places of worship is very low. This is why I was very surprised to discover such a strong sense of the sacred in Silicon Valley.

Today too often we restrict the sacred to religious elements, but by doing this we are missing a lot of things in the way individuals experience religion in our contemporary era. If we think of “religion” as any institution that frames and shapes our beliefs and our spirituality, then we need to think outside the strict framework of religion to see how secular organizations also frame and shape our faith, our spirituality , our rituals.

The thesis of your book is that work replaces religion, particularly in its social dimension, bringing a sense of belonging to employees who come to work in large technological companies.

Carolyn Chen— I have tried to place my study of Silicon Valley in the more general context of the role played by religion in the United States. Religion has been and still is the vehicle through which Americans establish their identity, build their community, give meaning to their lives, and experience a form of transcendence. When I say that work has replaced religion in Silicon Valley, what I am suggesting is that workplaces now fulfill these functions, especially for highly educated workers, belonging to what I call the “knowledge economy”.

One of the things I emphasize in my book is that most tech workers are individuals with an immigrant background. These “immigrants” who settle in Silicon Valley do not come directly from abroad, they mostly come from Kansas, Michigan, New York, states that are much more religious than San Francisco Bay. And when they arrive in Silicon Valley, they are mostly single men, and are sort of “uprooted”: they no longer have institutions to support them. The workplace thus fulfills a function of community binder, which is traditionally provided by the religious institution.

As we know, the policy of Big Tech in Silicon Valley is to meet all the needs of their employees in their workplace: they eat, meet and entertain themselves on site. But what is the place of the spiritual in this neo-management?

Carolyn Chen— Now, these companies also take care of the spiritual well-being of their employees to make them more productive. Over the past forty years, companies have changed their work culture and not just in Silicon Valley: all major American companies now have a “mission”, they have “ethical principles”, an “original myth” and even a ” charismatic leader” for some. Fundamental elements of any religious organization.

And this spiritual aspect of the company is reflected in the lexical field of employees, tech workers use terms like “call”, “vocation”, “joy” and even “love” to talk about their work. These are words that individuals did not previously use to describe their profession, they reserved them for family or religion.

A management specialist told me in an interview: meaning at work is the new currency “. Which means that today, providing “meaning at work” is the new gold, it’s what encourages employees to work more and more. I’ve seen companies that offer meditation sessions, that bring in spiritual leaders to give “inspirational talks”. Other companies offer ‘wellness benefits’, which take the form of spiritual retreats or meditation retreats.

What you discover during your interviews with human resources managers in tech companies is that this attention paid to the spiritual well-being of employees is linked to the fear of “burn out”.

Carolyn Chen— In an industrial economy, to increase its profits, the company can find cheaper materials or cheaper labor. But in a “knowledge economy”, because it depends on highly qualified workers, the company increases its profits by increasing the work capacity of its employees.

“The idea is to get employees to think that work gives meaning to their lives”

In this sense, it is quite obvious to see how the burn out leads to a devaluation of a company in the knowledge economy. This is why it is so important for these companies to pay particular attention to the spiritual well-being of the employees, so that what makes the value of the company is not depreciated. And how to increase the value of a skilled worker? One of the solutions may be to involve the employee more in his work. And for that, the idea is to get employees to think that work gives meaning to their lives.

You coined a term to describe the importance of devotion to work in Silicon Valley, the term “Techtopia”. What reality covers this theme?

Carolyn Chen— I describe Silicon Valley as a “Techtopia,” a technology-oriented society where work becomes the highest form of human fulfillment. To present the effects of such a social organization, I use a metaphor. Imagine that all social institutions are represented by “magnets”: these magnets compete with each other for the time, energy and devotion of the individuals who make up society.

In a Techtopia, the workplace is the biggest and most powerful magnet. It monopolizes the time, energy and devotion of the community. All the other magnets — family, religious communities, associations, political organizations, artistic clubs — are much smaller magnets, and much weaker in comparison to this huge magnet. If any of these institutions want to get some of the community’s time and energy, they have to serve this huge magnet that is the tech workplace.

And this poses a major problem for the social fabric in these territories. The people outside these technological places with whom I was able to speak — public figures, managers of small businesses, religious representatives — told me that people no longer had the time to engage in politics or in local associations. . Individuals are so invested in their workplace that they end up deserting and impoverishing the public domain.

You completed your survey in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Doesn’t the democratization of telework call into question your conclusions on the advent of “Techtopia” in Silicon Valley?

Carolyn Chen— I actually wrote this book before the pandemic, and since then some things have changed in Silicon Valley, but other things haven’t. Already, one thing that has not changed and has even increased: the frequency of burnouts among skilled workers. Because with telework, the boundary between professional and private life was even more blurred. And the burnout of these workers also came from the fact that all the social and spiritual benefits of work were less present with telework.

This is also why today tech companies are trying to bring their employees back to their workplace. And that resonates with the attraction theory of this “magnet”: work is not just about money, it gives you other things, invisible things.

However, we have seen some protest from employees in Silicon Valley recently: Meta employees question Mark Zuckerberg’s strategy, some Twitter employees resigned following the arrival of Elon Musk. Don’t you think that the new generation of skilled workers in Silicon Valley could reject the “Techtopia” model?

Carolyn Chen— I was able to observe a movement going in this direction, in particular with the generation Z which arrives. Younger people say they don’t want to have the same lifestyle as their elders. Also, they started working during the pandemic, and were not socialized in the same way about the level of intensity and the level of expectation at work in the sector, because they started their careers remotely. .

But there is one thing that contradicts this idea of ​​a paradigm shift for tech workers: there is still a silent buy-in to this mentality in educated groups. I work at UC Berkeley, and I find that my students always want meaningful jobs, they want work to be the primary source of meaning in their lives. It hasn’t changed, and it confirms the hypothesis of the advent of “Techtopia”.

The test Work Pray Code is online for free at this link.

Interview by Juliette Devaux

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“Work has replaced religion in Silicon Valley”