What is work for?
These thoughts are prompted by reading the next chapter of Scot McKnight’s One.Life which is on Work (on which I’ll post on after this one). And by an essay which Bryan Appleyard wrote back in 2000which, I think, was prophetic in every sense of that word – it told the truth about the present and it predicted the future.
First a question – what is your experience of the modern world of work? Does what follows resonate?
In the last 30 years or so work has been revolutionized. Gone is a job for life and the company man and the big manufacturing industries. The workplace is now a highly fluid, stressed and insecure world. No-one seriously expects to work a lifetime in one company any more.
Globalisation, the near collapse of hyper-capitalism, the demise of manufacturing and the rise of service industries – have all transformed work into a frequently ruthless environment. Company loyalty – of the company to the employee, or vice versa is a thing of the past.
It was management guru Charles Handy who said
“People will have to think of themselves as more like actors, moving from role to role rather than as being continuously employed.”
We are on our own, having to survive and negotiate the world of work – and market ourselves and our skills to be employable. We are competing not just against other applicants or fellow workers, but against low-cost labour in China or Poland – just ask the 4000 ex-Dell workers in Limerick.
Insecurity, long working hours, both couples working – all these poses challenges for families and the crucial job of parenting.
Today’s post Credit Crunch Ireland is a sobering example of how insecure the world of work has become. Many have lost their jobs due to wild excesses in an apparently remote international banking system. Even the formerly secure and well-paid Irish public sector is to be reformed and cut by 25,000.
And in the midst of all this, the very purpose of work has become unclear. What is it for? Bryan Appleyard puts it this way in his essay:
Not that long ago its purpose was to produce something as well and as efficiently as possible, profits and salaries were effectively a by-product. Managers did not speak about their pay, they spoke about their product. And the “professional” middle classes considered themselves professional precisely because they had a purpose over and above the merely financial, it gave them prestige.
But the prestige has evaporated under the rise of an increasingly crude turbo-capitalism where top banker’s bonuses are paid in millions (even last week in the UK one guy was given a bonus of £6.5million). Money alone became the dominant cultural purpose of work.The mad pursuit of a bonus culture and endless profits based on pryamid schemes and nobody making anything eventually collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
And all of this is to say that work, for most people these days, is not a lot of fun – if you have paid employment that is.
Appleyard asked a decade ago
‘Do you live to work or work to live?
His conclusion was that the modern workplace is a hostile environment, suited for some but not for many others. And for our own sanity, we need to put the ruthless demands of the corporate world of work in its proper place and sustain our lives with relationships, compassion, creativity etc. In his words, we need to ‘get a life’ beyond work.
Christians should be able to affirm most of what Appleyard says here. Life is to be found in loving God and serving him. Life is more than money and career and success at work. Work is a blessing, it is a way to earn a living, it gives dignity and a sense of accomplishment and so on – but if we think that it will deliver all that life is about it has become an idol that will fail us.