Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Is Hard Work a Good Thing?

“My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams.” Smoholla (Wanapum 19th Century Prophet)

If earning a living is a right and a duty, it is only just that work should provide an opportunity to do more than subsist as a wage slave. The Joint Public Issues Team is delighted that Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church has recently committed to lobby FTSE 100 companies to adopt the Living Wage.

But should work be about more than money: what about the ‘work ethic’? One old fashioned idea that hard work is a religious duty. This involves the belief that it is part of the ‘curse’ for humanity’s disobedience to God and therefore, the harder and more disagreeable the work, the better! There is doubtless a religious mystery around the inevitability of toil and pain in our lives, but all too often this belief is taken to imply a sadistic God; it has been abused to justify both metaphorical and actual slavery, and the dour notion that we must work hard and joylessly all our lives, finally to be released from slavery by death to become free citizens of Heaven. Or perhaps not...

Our present attitudes to work, and to workers, are still deeply bound up with a slave model whereby workers are ‘sinful’, must be disciplined, and their rights minimised. Worryingly, George Osborne has recently announced various measures which privilege the interests of employers over employees. This appears to represent a mistrustful and punitive view of workers, in contradiction to the belief in the dignity of work which Ian Duncan Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill supposedly implies.

The second dangerous half-truth, recently popularised through the language of New Age pop-psychology, is that work is about fulfilment or self-actualisation. We should relish change, development and creativity; we should want to be working all day. This can be true for some people in some jobs, but doesn’t reflect most people’s experience. In some corporate cultures, professing a love of hard work, and seeing insecurity as exciting, is demanded: we are expected to multi-task, relish new challenges, look forward to acquiring new skills, ‘hit the ground running’ and so on. But it is one thing for a person to say that they enjoy work. It is quite another for a master to insist that his or her slaves profess love of hard work in a stressful environment, ruled by the clock or the punch-card.

Half-understood philosophies of work are a scourge of humanity. Many people still believe that hardship is the result of laziness or stupidity. This one-sided view also informs theologies which claim that ‘God rewards hard work’ and that therefore ‘if you succeed, it must be because God wanted you to’. By implication, those who do not succeed either did not work hard enough or were not acceptable to God.

One of the problems with this hyper-individualistic attitude to work is that it supports the gradual erosion of its deeper social context, rendering workers into atomic, competing units. Society and employers have a responsibility to support workers through just wages and working conditions. The individualistic attitude breeds competition rather than cooperation; it divides people into successes and failures, and erodes family life.

Churches have a role to play in promoting the ‘dignity of work’; this may sometimes involve the dignified, temporary acceptance of servitude, but ultimately it is about freedom rather than slavery, fulfilment rather than drudgery and the common good rather than selfish motivation. As well as the campaign for the Living Wage, let us hope churches like Methodism continue to remember their historic concern with workers’ rights.

In an age that has largely lost the Sabbath, churches also have the potential to remind people of the true meaning of leisure, quiet time and celebration.

Lastly, isn’t it time that theologians started challenging the notion that ‘hard work’ is a good in itself, and that life is meant to be a struggle, and restored the notions of holiness and vocation to the idea of work. They might also suggest that it is time we prioritise radical social sharing, to lessen the time spent on subsistence and maximise the opportunity for people to discover what their truly creative and fulfilling work might be. Radical, utopian thoughts, but maybe their time has come?