show remarkably little interest in any non-monetary dimension of economic
activity. The professionals’ laws of the market are not designed to deal with anything
that cannot be assigned a price, so they can bring little insight into the
distinct virtues and vices of modern labour. A much better starting point is the
brilliant 1981 encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Laborem exercens. What follows is inspired by that document.
might seem that modern work is always the same, so modern work is not
essentially different from pre-modern work. After all, “work is a fundamental
dimension of human existence on earth” (4).
It is a way in which the “human family strives to make its life more
human and to render the whole earth submissive to this goal” (27). None of
that will change as long as we await the coming of a new heaven and a new
earth. Until then, the human effort to dominate and humanise the earth will
lose neither its glorious likeness to the Creator’s own work in the world nor the
penalties of human sinfulness—toil, pride, greed and the rest.
the modern world is new and different in significant ways—“industrial
development provides grounds for re-proposing in new ways the question of human
work” (5). So much has changed. Our labour has more power over the world,
thanks to numerous technological developments. Our lives of labour are mostly more
organised, thanks to the developments of complex bureaucracies which divide,
assign and co-ordinate work. We are more dependent on each other, as the long
chains of production and trade and the sharing of knowledge and expertise
create an increasingly global workforce. We are also more divided than in the
past, as the difference between labour in the rich and the poor parts of the
world has become more dramatic. We are more concerned with economic matters, as
secularisation has dulled the popular appeal of more spiritual concerns. We are
more likely to separate work from the rest of life, as impersonal organisations
increasingly take on the economic roles once played by families and small
does all this mean for the dignity of work? Well, there are—as John Paul II
used to say—light and shadows. I will start with the latter.
is easy to tell the whole story of industrial development, including the
changes in labour, as a tragedy. Technology—impersonal monster that spawns
oppressive capitalism. Money and finance—debasing and destructive. Spiritual
emptiness—everywhere. We moderns have abandoned the divine rest of the Sabbath,
and just want to build ever-bigger barns. Modern labour fits right in—undignified
in so many ways.
labour dehumanises. In manufacturing jobs, “Man is…treated on the same level as
the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not
in accordance with the true dignity of his work…”(7). And these people working
as ersatz machines are often poorly paid and badly treated.
labour alienates in its bureaucratic excess. Many people, including highly paid
skilled workers and senior executives, are deeply dissatisfied by their work.
After all, “the person who works … wishes … to be able to know that
in his work … he is working ‘for himself’. This awareness is
extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization,
which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from
deadens the spirit with its dullness. There are too many narrowly defined and
monotonous tasks, bound by extensive and detailed rules.
too much of it is actually harmful to those who work or to those who consume
the fruits of the work. Pornography feeds lust, as non-nutritious food exacerbates
gluttony and many idle modern pleasures placate the spiritually slothful. All
these socially harmful trades require many workers.
too much of it is at best only a little bit better than morally neutral in its
effects. Marketing, finance and law, and the many businesses which support them,
all thrive. They may do a little good, but there must be better ways to deploy most
of their workers’ skills and energy. Electronic gadgets do some good, but they
too often distract attention from more valuable activities. It takes many
millions of people to produce them and their software.
there are the disordered social values shown by the pay and prestige of
different occupations. Even most defenders of the value of financial activity
would agree that many professionals in that field are overpaid relative to
their contribution to the common good. Conversely, the vast majority of people
who work at taking care of other people do relatively badly. The social
undervaluation of caring labour, both unpaid and paid, is particularly hard on
women, who do most of it. Even in medical care—generally considered an
extremely valuable activity in modern society—the work of taking basic care of
the ill is generally very poorly paid.
the dangers of denigrating motherhood, John Paul II was clear: “It will redound
to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother … to devote herself
to taking care of her children …Having to abandon these tasks in order to take
up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of
society and of the family ….” (19). Conversely, “just remuneration for the work
of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will
suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing
security for its future” (19). Here, the pope is speaking about paying fathers
enough to support a family, not the state reimbursing mothers for their labours
of love. In Europe today, more than a few years of full-time unpaid motherhood
requires substantial economic sacrifice. In the United States, the economic
pain usually starts after a few months or even weeks.
bad aspect of modern labour is the decline of some good pre-modern labour.
Craft work has dwindled away; few artists can support themselves by selling
their works; farming work is denied to many who would like it. The economic logic
for these choices may be compelling, but there is also a social choice, a
distressing one, to let economic logic take precedence over all other
considerations. When an artist is paid to monitor social media references to a
particular brand of consumer product, a job which cannot serve the social good
as much as even a mediocre artistic creation, something has gone badly wrong.
there is the failure to do work which could be welcomed in society. Much
valuable labour is not performed—from keeping public spaces beautiful and roads
in good repair to taking adequate care of the weak and needy. The problem is
not a shortage of workers, since far too many people are still unemployed,
underemployed or unwillingly and unnecessarily idle. Nor is the problem exactly
a lack of money to pay people for this work. Much valuable unpaid work is also
not done or not done well. There are problems with poor organisation of labour
within the economy, and deeper problems of poor social judgements about what
goods should be pursued.
the trends are discouraging. The dignity of workers is increasingly sacrificed
for the convenience of employers. A renewal of the debilitating reliance of casual
and unreliable paid labour is the most notable example. Also, the daily hours
dedicated to paid work, which decreased for more than a century, have started
to increase, particularly in some prestigious professions.
a subtle but important problem with labour in the modern economy is that people
often expect too much from it. The modern turn to radical individualism and worldly
concerns, hallmarks of the last four centuries, have left many people lonely
and spiritually bereft. The life of labour is increasingly relied on as a principle
source of personal connection and of transcendent meaning. And it is right that
it be so. Labour has a real spiritual value because “man’s work is a participation
in God’s activity” (25). The value is increased when jobs offer social and
intellectual rewards, which many jobs today actually do. Still, work simply
cannot offer the same spiritual opportunities as worship, beauty and love. Economic
concerns are too worldly, economic communities are too shallow and, in this
fallen world, toil and futility are inevitably too present for the life of
labour to provide deep and lasting satisfaction. To ask labour to provide a
substantial portion of the fullness and meaning of life is almost a sort of
the extent that work does provide meaning, it is often not the joyous
self-actualisation craved by enthusiasts for career satisfaction. John Paul
II’s understanding of the spiritual value of suffering (see his apostolic
letter Salvifici Doloris) influenced
his appreciation of labour. The “glimmer of new life, of the new good”
which shines out of work always comes “through toil—and never without it” (27).
This wisdom is almost never recognised in the cult of meaning through labour,
so its followers, including many Christians, often put too much effort into chasing
after a job which will always make them “happy.”
these bad things are true, and John Paul II surely knew about most of them.
Still, his discussion of the “immense development of technological means”
starts by calling it “an advantageous and positive phenomenon” (10). The
subsequent qualifications are not significant enough to undermine his basic positive
judgment. Technology, money, bureaucracy and even affluence can, and mostly do,
promote great goods.
importantly, these modern developments allow workers to produce ample
quantities of all the basic economic goods. Our work feeds the hungry, clothes
the naked, extends lifespans, spreads education and heals a large portion of
the ill. The work of only a small portion of the population is needed to reach
all these once impossible goals. The rest of us are potentially left free to
work on things that make society even better or make our own work lives more
last is a modern speciality.
course, work always comes with sin and toil—we can never feel too good about
it. However, modern work promotes our dignity better than pre-modern labour in
several fairly important ways.
the most profound innovation is a far greater social appreciation of the value
of many kinds of work which were long considered undignified. Skilled factory workers,
manual labourers, workers performing tasks traditionally considered impure—the
status of all of these has been elevated. Even some traditional women’s jobs—nurses,
teachers and office workers—now receive a bit more respect. The Catholic Church
has endorsed the modern upgrade. The veneration of St Joseph the worker was
followed by the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that, even “the most
ordinary everyday activities” are a “participation in God’s activity” (Gaudium et spes, 34).
tangibly, there is much less body-depleting toil, thanks to new technologies. In
comparison to all pre-industrial economies, far fewer people die from labour
accidents, suffer infirmities from overwork or are made ill by pollution.
Overall, the effluents of industry are much less damaging to health than the smoke
from poorly vented fires which most women used to inhale during their daily
these countries, there is also much less cruelty to workers, thanks to a new
attitude articulated in a thick net of labour laws and regulations. There have
been declines in working hours (despite their recent lengthening), increases in
the years spent in the relative leisure of study and retirement, improvements
in workplace safety and greater protection from bad air, inadequate hygiene and
even uncomfortable desks. Bullying from bosses, once so standard as hardly to
be noticed, is now usually considered poor practice. The shaming of sexual
abusers of the last few months is a typical welcome modern development.
Behaviour which was widely considered unattractive but unavoidable may soon be unacceptable.
jobs are more alienating than ever, but much new labour is actually more
fulfilling. Certainly, too many workers still act as quasi-machines, but an
increasing portion of work requires skill, flexibility and some psychological
acuity. The move of most of the population from lifelong and isolated daily
toil at subsistence agriculture to changing careers in organised enterprises,
often in collaboration with a wide variety of skilled fellow workers, has
increased the portion of jobs which offer significant amounts of somewhat
meaningful personal interactions with colleagues and customers. In the past,
only a tiny number of priests, scholars and merchants worked at intellectual
labour or enjoyed professional networks which extended past a small local
community. Now many more jobs are set in global networks and require the
highest intellectual skills. The extension of the average number of years spent
in education and the expansion of scientific research allow far more people to
make more use of their intellectual gifts. Some less intellectually complex
work has also become more challenging in good, life-fulfilling ways. Workers who
get bored can often change jobs or careers. Further education, a soul-livening
process, is encouraged.
the shadow of social disrespect for maternal and other domestic labours hides
some light. Parents frequently have more time to dedicate to the labour of
caring for their children. They often have more knowledge about how to provide
good care. The decline of domestic drudgery is an undoubted gain, even if much
of the freed-up time is used poorly.
life of labour cannot be separated completely from the life of consumption, so
the rewards of work—the consumption of goods and services allocated in exchange
for labour—have to be considered in thinking about the goodness of modern
labour. Those rewards have increased so much that the typical pattern for the
poor in every pre-modern society—desperate toil, barely enough consumption
goods to survive—has all but disappeared. Instead, there is a rich mix of
comforts, security and opportunity.
the life of labour also cannot be separated from the life of leisure. Leisure,
the worldly extension of the divine Sabbath, is essential to human fulfilment.
It is time that can be dedicated to the transcendental aspirations which daily
labour can never satisfy. Both the time available for leisure and the richness
of available leisure activities have increased greatly, thanks to the
productivity of modern labour. There are weekends, holidays, school breaks and
the possibility of gap years and sabbaticals. There are more opportunities for
education, there is more access to the wide world of natural beauty and human
accomplishment and there are more facilities to perfect the body and enlighten
the soul. The possibilities of good leisure are often ignored, but rich
societies are mostly free enough for any worker to take them up.
Lights and Shadows
is not true that for every negative of the modern age there is an equal and
corresponding positive. On the contrary, the gains and losses from our
centuries-long experiment with new thinking are asymmetrical and generally
incommensurate. Despite this caveat, I will still hazard a judgment about the
changes in the economy. There are significant negatives—I have listed a fairly
long list for labour and could provide similar enumerations for production,
consumption, allocation and the environment. However, there are many and, in my
judgment, probably more significant positives.
haters of the modern spirit might find this praise unpalatable. Such critics are
certainly right to condemn all the dire effects of the empty modern promises:
the separation of freedom from God-given truth, the idolisation of human power
and the denigration of gratitude and spiritual sacrifice. Still, discernment is
necessary. The modern spirit is misguided, but not without its virtues. In the
culture, as in each person’s heart and mind, the results of its triumph are
always a mix of “lights and shadows”, as John Paul II said in his discussion of
the modern attitude towards the dignity of human life in Evangelium Vitae (28).
should not be surprising if the light predominates in economic parts of life.
After all, the modern spirit is nothing if not worldly, technical (even
technocratic, to use a favourite word of Pope Francis) and universalist. The
worldliness has led to ever greater attention to the work of human hands. The
technical excellence has ensured that this work is ever more productive. And the
universality—the vision of all people being essentially equal in this world and
not only in the eyes of God—has encouraged a social revaluation of manual
labour and a Christian-friendly appreciation of the striving for excellence in
all sorts of labour.
modern contribution to the economy, including the life of labour, were long in
coming. The industrial revolution followed the intellectual, artistic and
political revolutions (although it preceded the sexual revolution), and in the
first few generations of industrialisation, the new labour was predominantly
wretched. In retrospect, though, I think it is clear that the modern spirit is actually
fairly well-suited for economic life, which is the most material and least
spiritual of all human activities. The tendency of critics of modernity to
focus only on economic harm—the genuine depredations of consumerism, profit-hunger
and economically smothering governments—seems to me misguided. The modern
economy, including the life of labour, still has many shadows, but there are
far darker patches in many other parts of modern life.
my praise is lukewarm, and comes with a crucial qualification. The shift of
attention which has on balance made labour better has inevitably been accompanied
by lesser respect for spiritual matters, including spiritual labours. The
inevitable result has been a deterioration in those domains. Labours of love,
labours of worship, labours of artistic creation—all seem either devalued or
distorted by the modern spirit. Those losses are part of the curse of the
modern turn from God, and they stain modern labour.
conclusion for the long term is mixed. If societies ever turn again to favour
more spiritual values, many substantial reforms of labour practices and
attitudes will ensue. However, many current practices and attitudes could be
carried almost unchanged into this putative better epoch. There is no reason to
abandon the new-found excellences. The ability to use God-given human skills
and knowledge to extract more of the potential flourishing of the divine gifts
hidden in created nature has undoubtedly been encouraged and stained by the
modern “Titanic” desire to take absolute power of nature, but the results—supporting
far more God-loved and potentially God-loving human lives with more adequate
nutrition, better health and far more education—suggest amidst the shadows of
sin is the light of a worthy obedience of the divine command to till the earth.
There is no reason to give up on such modern gains as more interesting and
highly productive labour, the dignified treatment of all workers and the richer
lives of labour for women.
dreaming of a spiritual renaissance may help frame the more urgent question of
how work should be approached right now in developed economies. The question
can be asked both politically and personally. For the moment, political
reflection is unlikely to be fruitful. While the problems of labour identified
in this article are broadly recognised, there seems to be almost no desire in
society to endorse the sort of policies which might actually address them.
decisions about labour are different. We have some freedom to make unpopular
choices about our own labour. We can look for jobs that bring out the best in
us, including our ability to toil for the sake of the good, and that promote
goodness in the world. We can also recognise that objectively more valuable work
may bring in less money (or none at all, for “stay-at-home” mothers) and less
social prestige—and still make the necessary sacrifices to take the better part.
We can look for labour that is meaningful, serving others or producing beautiful
things. We can found, work at or consume the products of organisations which
support the dignity of their workers. We can use our economic life to mitigate,
rather than to amplify, the alienation which so much of the modern world
short, we should be grateful for the many opportunities for fulfilling and
helpful provided by the modern economy, but not blind to its many weaknesses.
Edward Hadas is a freelance journalist, former financial analyst and Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. He is the author of Human Goods, Economic Evils: A Moral Approach to the Dismal Science.
 All references are to sections of Laborem exercens.
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