Perennial Politicians & the Temptation of Power

One's failure to recognize he is not a demigod makes him blind to wisdom

In the wake of California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s burial, op-ed writers have been scribbling away on why America’s leadership class is so dominated by octogenarians (with a few septuagenarians as junior officers).

Writing in The New York Times (Oct. 8), David French picked up Ross Douthat’s most recent hobby horse: “workism” [article here]. “Workism” is the idea that Americans have so invested their personal identity with their work that work has ceased to be an occupation, a livelihood, or even a vocation. It’s grown into a constituent part of one’s identity, so that people cannot imagine themselves apart from their job. He links it particularly to how Baby Boomers (who are really Senior Boomers) see themselves.

Once upon a time, I might have agreed with this assessment. I still don’t completely disagree with it. The connection between Americans and their workplaces is strong. I’ve often written about the dangers of “greedy work.” But, as said above, I might have agreed with the proposition once upon a time. I’m beginning to doubt it. My doubts stem from the recent flight from the workplace, especially of young people from the workplace.

The phenomenon of men opting out of the workplace has been documented. The cohort of men who are not just not working but not even looking for work is growing. When workplaces reopened after COVID, employers found resistance — especially from younger workers and from workers in professional, stable jobs — to go back to the office. If you read the journals where the elite pretend to think — The New York Times, for example — nary a week passes without some article on how we need to rethink work, why the 40-hour workweek is tyrannical, and so on.

A point of concern in this flight from work is found in data about summer jobs, as researched by Nick Eberstadt, showing the decline in teen participation in the summer job market. When I was a teenager (1973-79), having a summer job was a mix between an expectation, a badge of honor, and a mark of responsibility.

So, I think David French is somewhat off the mark when he says “workism tells younger Americans that their job will define them. It is core to who they’re becoming.” If that’s what “workism” is telling them, I’m not sure they’re buying.

What was most interesting about French’s article was his thesis that politicians who would otherwise be long past usual retirement age won’t leave because of “workism,” because their jobs have become so constitutive of their identity they cannot imagine dying without their access badges on. Maybe. But — like with many of French’s ideas — I’m not buying. I think a far simpler explanation can be found not in “workism” but in the spiritual theology that grounds the vows behind the three evangelical counsels.

There is a reason Catholic religious take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience: because those vows stand in contrast to the forces that most ensnare people morally — sex, money, and power. And while temptations related to each of those things can come at any time, one might also note there’s often something of a chronological progression in which one is most seductive. Young people are usually at the height of their libido and the nadir of their savings. Middle-aged folks usually have resolved the sex issue via marriage but are in the stage of life when material things and their costs matter: family, house, car, education, tuition, etc. By the time one is a senior citizen — and certainly by the time one is a successful elite octogenarian — one has already reached the zenith of financial earning potential and needs Viagra for libido. But the temptation of power, of having a voice and vote that matter, is another question.

Now, of course, sex, money, and power can all be used responsibly. But when a person’s identity comes to be intertwined with one or more of them, that generally does not bode well. And one of the first things to go — the vital insight that would save lots of people from foolishly clinging to sex, money, or power — is the humility to recognize “there is a time for every matter under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die…” As Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 points out, there’s plenty of time to do X and to stop doing X. “God has made everything appropriate to its time” (Eccl. 3:11), but the failure to recognize one is not a demigod makes him blind to that perspective.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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