What will work and employment become?

Current Affairs / Religion / Science

Matthew Fox, the Episcopal priest, not the actor, is one of the few theologians I know who’s been thinking about the meaning of work and vocation within the larger matrix of an understanding of the purpose of Creation. There’s a sense in his writing, and of others, as well as that of sociologists, that human beings have a deep seated need to do meaningful work.

But there’s a problem lately. Jobs are going away. Even the cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.

I came across this article a few months ago that points out that our increasingly sophisticated technology is perhaps driving the change. We need less workers to accomplish what we used to need…

From an essay by David Roffman in the MIT Technology Review that discusses the work of ­Erik Brynjolfsson, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee which focuses on trying to get a handle on the shift:

“[T]he most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the ‘great decoupling.’ And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. ­Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’”

More here.

(It’s a long article…)

I think the Church clearly has a need to think this through. What will say to culture when the basic need of the community to provide meaningful work is no longer being met, but we still swim in a cornucopia of material goods that threatens to drown us.

Oddly enough Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame) thought about this in his wondering about the future of humanity. He imagined that technology would commodify most of industrial production – and given a limitless source of energy – no one would want for anything. He imagined that mass produced stuff would lose it’s value. Food stuff, technology, etc would be essentially free. The things that would become valuable would be things that were handcrafted, one of a kind sorts of objects. A violin by a master crafter is much more highly prized than a instrument largely stamped out by machine. A hand thrown pot made by a master ceramicist in Japan is much more precious to us than a vase we pick up at the local big box store for a buck; even though both serve the same essential purpose.

So if technology is fundamentally changing the meaning of work and, I guess by extension, the meaning of vocation, what shall we as the Church contribute to the conversation?

Does anyone know of anyone working in this area of theology?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Barbara Mays-Stock says

    Thoughts on technology and vocation

    One problem is that as technology increases, it eliminates jobs for the blue collar worker. It doesn’t mean that the money goes away for those services, but it means that the wealthy, who are usually the corporations who have quickly swallowed up the small, independent creator, can now mass produce on a level not ever known before, stretching around the globe. Stores like Ten Thousand Villages, which bring hand crafted jewelry, fiber products, etc. to our markets, are trying to give a fair price to the men and women in developing nations that they are trying to serve by selling their wares. Unfortunately, this also has the negative effect of making these things more expensive in a tight economy, so fewer people can buy them. It can also undercut the ability of a small independent businessperson in the States to be able to sell their hand made, quality product for a fair market price. It’s a complicated issue, encompassing more than economics.

    I really appreciate the Gene Roddenbury school of equality and harmony, but we are far from that state of being. I do think we should continue to strive for it. In the church, we often simplify complicated things, grabbing the quick fix and thinking that it will stretch out to cover all the bases. This does not take away from the fact that we try very hard to make things better, but in a fast shrinking world, more and more things get in the way of the single solution.

    The church can take the front line in combatting economic injustice by looking within, to see where we can show the world that we are willing to pay real wages for what is a true vocation. The true vocation of Deacon, for instance, has, for about 90% of the time met up against a church that does not provide for a living wage or any wage at all. This has been explained most often by the idea that the church cannot afford to pay deacons for the work that they do in the world, helping in many cases those who are most needy and destitute. It has the actual affect of minimizing the number of deacons who can answer the call to serve, unless they are independently wealthy, supported by a spouse or are retired from the world of work that is properly compensated for. I believe that, as a part of what makes me a deacon, the call to speak out against an injustice is essential. When a person has to work at two jobs– one to bring home the milk and bread and one to serve the church for no wages, we are fooling ourselves to think that we can lead by example.

  2. Jenny Garnto says

    God IS Vegan: simply put, His Original-Plan in The Garden of Eden WILL-BE Restored in His Peaceable-Kingdom someday where “…the lion will lie down with the lamb…” (it would behoove-us, to BEGIN: NOW)!

  3. Good post; I’ve been thinking about some of these things for a while now. One of Roddenberry’s standard Star Trek scenarios was a highly technological society made up of craftspeople and artists!

    It’s starting to happen in some ways, too, via the creation of smaller farms creating organic products; small breweries making craft beers; jewelers hand-crafting stuff again. I don’t know enough about economics to know if this sort of thing is viable in the long term, though; can enough people make a reasonable living doing things like this? Can technology continue to make staple foods cheaper, even while fewer and fewer people are involved in their production – so that those artisan, and the rest of us, can afford to buy it? Will money really be abolished? Will the population need to stabilize? I just don’t know the answers. It does seem to me that “the dignity of work” is an awfully important thing, though.

    And I agree it all needs to be thought through. I’ve been trying to follow along with something called The Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy, to see what they have to say about all this. It’s all quite complicated, I think – but there definitely seems to be some movement in this direction out there at the moment….

  4. Thought-provoking post. I agree with you, Barbara. I am one of those, like you, who has a civil servant’s heart. I feel like I am destined to earn a low wage because of that. I am a caseworker for a non-profit where I help with children. I am about to take a position within my organization where I get to help the elderly, something that I feel more called to do. The crazy thing is that I am actually going to be taking a slight pay-cut when I take this other position. In my little time in the industry I have come to see how overworked and underpaid these types of jobs really are. Your comment about how a deacon needs to be financially set (either because of retirement or income from their spouse) seems true to me. Either that or the person will be overworked. That is one reason why I don’t believe I would want to be a deacon. I would rather go all the way, get a M. Div., and become a full-fledged priest, not because I lack the desire to serve my fellow man without being paid, but because one has to eat, pay bills, and have Sabbath-rest without having to work another job in order support my service. I’m definitely one of those who needs meaningful work. I couldn’t have it any other way.

  5. Barbara Mays-Stock makes some good points. I would add that we have moved from a labor-market economy to a service economy. We need to begin by paying an adequate wage to people who work in serving the needs of others. This means a minimum wage of $15 to $20 dollars an hour given our present-day situation. We also need to improve the social safety-net by adding more tax for those who can afford it in order to enhance social security, medicare and medicaid.
    I realize this is a minority view in our society, but it is a matter of social justice and compassionate care.

    Every day new technologies are emerging which benefit a few creative people and add wealth to the economy. As the gap between rich and poor increases and we must find a way to reverse the trend. What about a limit on the higher end of the scale and a just redistribution of wealth. The resources of God’s creation are for everyone; there are limits to a free-market economy. We need a vigorous national debate about economic justice for all. Can the church lead the way?

  6. Betsey Rice says

    I just watched this clip from storyofstuff.org called “Story of Solutions” which suggests society change their goal in life from “More” to “Better”. It doesn’t directly talk about the imbalance of the work force, but by changing the goals of what is important in life, the balance of different skills, talents and ideas would likely be restored, as we all collaborated toward a healthier common goal. With the Gospel as our foundation, it seems we, as the Church, are called to help all society realize that to love God (our planet) and to love our neighbor (as in help, share, unite and collaborate) is not only a “nice” way to live, it is crucial in preserving the Earth and humanity. As the world begins to realize our crisis of global warming, etc. they might now be ready hear this 2,000 year old insight.
    p.s. I’m sorry I couldn’t make my computer make storyofstuff.org a link, but it’s worth checking it out.

  7. I don’t know of anyone who’s working in this area of theology, but I’m also not particularly plugged in to what’s going on in academic theology. My own sense of the matter is that for most people most of the time work has nothing to do with vocation; work is just what they do to ensure they can get life’s necessities. Vocation, on the other hand, arises from a person’s core, something like the song of the heart in “Happy Feet”, a piece of work tied up with ultimate importance. As a result vocation may not change much at all even if how people earn a living changes radically.

    Barbara has pointed out one area in which the church can be blamed for its practice, although as you probably know something similar is happening to priests, especially those who feel called to serve smaller parishes. And of course when it comes to paying people the church is a lot like the rest of the world. That doesn’t excuse us, but it does mean that the final solution may be beyond our control. Although I couldn’t tell you what the final solution will be. It could be that we devolve back to some sort of feudalism, or a Dickensian social structure in which a few people have plenty while everyone else constantly struggles just to stay alive, or perhaps to some sort of minimum income instead of a minimum wage in which folks only take work they find meaningful or especially remunerative in some way.

    Incidentally, technology isn’t the only reason for the disjunction between wages and productivity. Legal and taxing policies also play a role, as does unionization rates and union culture.

  8. Get in touch with Malcolm Brown, now Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England. He has done, and knows people who do, significant work in this area.

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