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Just Work: Modern Anxiety, Ancient Answer

Just Work: Modern Anxiety, Ancient Answer

Paul Bickley introduces the latest Theos report, ‘Just Work: Humanising the Labour Market in a Changing World’. 19/07/21

Over the past year, questions of work have played an increasing role in our national conversation. Questions of where we work, and how we work have dominated – with discussions on home working and sectoral shutdowns, and debates around the esteem and remuneration of those in the foundational economy – essential, or ‘key’ workers.  

To this debate, the latest Theos report, ‘Just Work: Humanising the Labour Market in a Changing World’ seeks to add a third question: why do we work? If you asked this question in the street, you’d get some strange looks. Surely we work because we have to – to pay the bills, and keep body and soul together.   

But that’s not quite everything. Dorothy Day – a significant figure in the Catholic Worker Movement – wrote in On Pilgrimage that: ‘A philosophy of work is essential if we would be whole men, holy men, healthy men, joyous men. A certain amount of goods is necessary for a man to lead a good life, and we have to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good.’ In fact, Christianity has always had a lot to say on the subject of work – scripturally, Genesis makes clear that we are made in the image of the Divine Worker, and St Paul writes to the Thessalonians to remind them to keep working, despite their belief in the imminent return of Christ. Perhaps you could sum up the Christian pro–work stance most simply like this: Work is not just necessary but good: it connects us to prosperity, to community, and gives meaning. 

The problem is, that doesn’t seem to be how most people think about their work. As part of this project, we conducted polling with YouGov on perceptions around work. This tends to support the view that most people are frustrated by their work. Amongst a list of statements about work, 33% agreed that “work is just a way of earning to provide for life’s necessities”, compared to on 16% who agreed that “I feel that in work I’m doing things that are really meaningful” and just 10% who agreed that “I believe my current work is part of my calling and vocation”. A significant number – 45% – said that they would train for a different career if they had the opportunity. However, ABC1 are far more likely to think their work is meaningful (21% of ABC1s think it’s meaningful, compared to 10% of C2DEs). 

There’s no doubt that there have been tensions in our experience of work for as long as we have laboured. Though Genesis makes clear we are made in the image of the Divine Worker, there is the idea that work is somehow cursed – “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life”.  Our modern working world, too, is often distorted, with bad incentives rampant, many forms of work not given their true recognition, while others are subject to ‘misenchantment’ – charged with an overinflated sense of meaning. Though work is good, connecting us to prosperity and each other, when humans become alienated from creator, creation and each other, then work becomes burdensome, difficult, and vulnerable to injustice and inequity. 

It’s no surprise that different Christian traditions have seen the humanisation of work as part of their mission – from the worker priest movement, to Quaker businesses, to Catholic Social Thought (this year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of John Paul II’s papal encyclical on work – Laborem Exercens).In the face of the global disruption we’re experiencing – the loss of jobs through automation, the environmental challenges, and the sheer fact of human vulnerability playing out so vividly during the pandemic, people of faith need to reapply their minds and mission to issues around work. How to make the great wave of overwork, underpay, and broken incentives roll back? We have a few solutions, informed by a Christian understanding of what it means to be human. They can be broken down as follows: 

1. First, a focus on a full work, rather than full employment economy. Paid employment is the main – but not the only – form of work, and unpaid labour, such as caring responsibilities and volunteer work, need greater esteem and focus from a policy perspective. Thinking around labour should also acknowledge, create space for, and properly support unpaid but essential forms of work, as well as recognising disparities in paid employment. 

2. Recognition of the human person as central to any healthy understanding of work. Investors, and first and foremost church investors, have achieved tangible changes through activism in areas such as climate change and governance. They should add clear requirements on the fair handling of wages, benefits, agency work, outsourcing and employee surveillance to the social criteria they look at within environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. 

3. Recovery of shared practices of rest, in order to counter our culture of overwork. Dissolving boundaries between employment and leisure – exacerbated during the pandemic – have negatively affected many workers. Overwork is literally killing people. For many, a combination of technology and the pandemic have broken the link between work and particular places and times – leading to an expectation, even if it is only an expectation of ourselves, that we will always be available. By turning to old – or creating new – shared practices of rest, we would help tackle overwork of people and exploitation of our natural environment. We should also look for ways to eliminate at least some of the vast quantity of unpaid overtime in the economy. In the UK we tend to leave this to individual employers to sort out, or even individual workers, but it’s important that we have shared patterns and shared rules – other countries like Japan have recognised the problem and legislated to tackle it.  

The issue is not work itself, but rather what happens when we make work, rather than the people who do it, our focus. We are disconnected from a healthy sense of work, and severing the needed boundaries between work and rest has set us adrift. The biblical idea of Sabbath is an ancient answer to modern anxieties. It’s time to rediscover it. 

Work is changing rapidly. Churches have a somewhat forgotten heritage of addressing these questions, and a strong intellectual framework from which they can think through many of the emerging issues. The pandemic, horrendous crisis though it is, represents a rare opportunity for societies to think about what they value highly. As someone once said, never waste a good crisis. 

Watch our 2 minute launch video here.

Watch the recording of the launch event here.

Read the report here.


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 Photo by Carl Campbell on Unsplash

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 19 July 2021

Coronavirus, Technology, Work


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