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What’s Love got to do with it? Introducing Theos’ Work Shift series

What’s Love got to do with it? Introducing Theos’ Work Shift series

Chine McDonald reflects on the changing world of work, and how it could be improved by recognising the importance of relationships both in and beyond the workplace. 11/03/2024

In 1942 the novelist Dorothy Sayers delivered a lecture Why Work? This lecture, later essay, is a classic in Christian economic thought.  However, Sayers was answering a question that, for most of the last 80 years, most people haven’t been asking. Work was necessary and dignifying; being in work meant that you had a chance of providing a home, giving children a decent life, taking a slice of growing national prosperity. 

It should come as no surprise that, as these promises have become mirages, people have started to ask again: why work? The question is at least partly rhetorical. Why work… if I’m fake self–employed in the platform economy and earning less than the minimum wage? Why work… if a huge slice (or even all) of my salary immediately evaporates in childcare costs? Why work… if my notional working hours hide many more in unpaid overtime? Why work… if my wage stagnates while the price of virtually everything rises?

Very many people in the UK feel that they are being asked, to use a biblical allegory, to make bricks without straw. While work in the UK has changed in some positive ways, it is not satisfying the needs of many.  

Sayers herself would answer that work is a good in itself. It is a human thing that we shouldn’t think to merely escape from if at all possible:

Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

If Sayers was right, then work should not be rejected but reclaimed. Work should ‘work better’ for ordinary people, precisely because it is so important – more important than the money we make from it.  

Sayers’ perspective reflects the basic fact that work has never been just an economic transaction, but for many is also the primary way in which they connect with sources of meaning and community beyond their immediate family or household. And sure enough, there is a growing appetite not just for more work but for more good work; for work that feeds the body but also satisfies our other needs too.

In this vein, we are today launching a three–part series, Work Shift: How Love Could Change Work, aimed at speaking into this debate. Readers will find it differs from much existing commentary on work. While the reports and essays in this series don’t ignore the economic dynamic, they go beyond it. Each adopts a relational lens. In other words, they show how thinking about work from the point of view of the relationships it forms and sustains can help us see what good work might be.  

The first report in the series, The Ties That Bind, launches today, and focuses on two significant trends especially transforming the labour market in the UK: the rise of lone working and the rise of insecure work. More than half of the UK workforce now work alone for all or part of the week, while nearly one in five UK workers are now in insecure work – over half of whom are in work that is both insecure and low paid. The rise of these forms is often celebrated as the rise of an increasingly flexible workforce, but all is not well; both trends also carry significant risks to both relationships and health. Ultimately, Tim Thorlby argues, a loss of mutuality in the workplace has made millions of us both poor and ill. As such, he calls for a new covenant for work, which balances the interests of employers and employees. And he is not merely moralizing: Tim has himself led a business – Clean for Good – which demonstrates that, even in sectors which seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom, things can be done differently.  

Looking forward to the rest of the series, Paul Bickley will reflect on the ways that changes in work patterns have either reinforced or undermined our relationships beyond the workplace. And finally, Hannah Rich will consider a form of work where love is central – care work – and how greater recognition of this centrality might help us approach the social care crisis.

Each historical era has brought new forms of work – the home, the farm, the factory, the office – and such different workspaces have not only brought new economic realities, but have created space for different kinds of human relationships and different forms of human community. Ultimately, we might say they have created different arenas for love to flourish. In our own time, in the aftermath of the pandemic and the rise of artificial intelligence, we are witnessing yet another paradigm shift in the world of work – and as the world of work changes rapidly around us, we have the opportunity to form workplaces that value people, support community, and operate justly. This series will contribute to that conversation.


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Chine McDonald

Chine McDonald

Chine is Director of Theos. She was previously Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement at Christian Aid. She has 16 years’ experience in journalism, media and communications across faith, media and international development organisations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Chine McDonald

Posted 11 March 2024



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