Login   Register

Work, Employment and Unemployment

In recent years hardly a month has gone past without a new book or article appearing on the subject of work in an age of unemployment, and that is so because there has been a massive shift in the whole experience of work and unemployment over the past 15-20 years, especially in Western countries. The changes in more recent times are very real for those directly affected by them. For example, the manufacturing industry has been shaken in two ways. There has been the total collapse of some manufacturing industries in Britain and Ireland and coupled with that there has been a technological revolution. The result is that millions of jobs which were once filled by the semi-skilled have gone. Indeed for regions heavily dependent on such industrial work the results have been dramatic, because patterns of work and employment are among the basic factors which create community. The collapse of these inherited patterns has had devastating effects on many communities. Marriages became vulnerable, home life was under threat, people suffered stress and lost a sense of worth and identity.

In the light of all this, how are we as Christians to view and deal with these important contemporary subjects of work and unemployment? Our answer must be, of course, that it is essential for us to develop a Christian mind and relate these issues always to the Word of God in the scriptures. In this pamphlet we shall develop our consideration of these subjects as follows:—

1. The Biblical doctrine of work.
2. The contemporary problem of unemployment.
3. The Christian's response to each of these.

The Biblical Doctrine of Work

Sometimes people think, or are led to believe, that the "orthodox view" of work is simply accepting that the Old Testament belief is that physical labour is a curse imposed on man as a punishment for his sins. That is a distortion of the truth. The Fall did indeed turn work, or some forms of work, into drudgery because the ground was cursed with thorns and thistles and cultivation became possibly only by the sweat of the brow. But work is a consequence of our creation in the image of God and not a consequence of the Fall. The Fall has by no means changed work as it is by creation. The Fall has aggravated the problems of work without destroying its satisfaction and joy.

We need, therefore today, to recover the Biblical doctrine of work. In Genesis I : 26, 28, 31 a we read, "Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the ground.' God saw all that He had made, and it was very good."

In those verses we have a beautiful example of God's satisfaction in His work. So at the very beginning of the Bible, God reveals Himself as a worker. Day by day, stage by stage, His creative work unfolded. When He created human beings, male and female, in His own image, He made them workers too. He gave them dominion over the earth and He told them to subdue the earth and work in His name. So from the beginning men and women have been given the privilege of being representatives, or stewards of the earth, in order to take care of the environment in God's name.

In Genesis 2: 8, 15 we are informed how God planted the Garden of Eden and put the man whom He had made into this garden, commanding him to "till it and keep it". In other words, he had to cultivate it and protect it. Just as He had put the earth in general into the care of man, now He put the Garden in particular into man's care.

In the light of these revealed truths about God and man in Genesis I & 2, God the worker and man the worker made in the image of God, we must develop a Biblical doctrine of work. We shall consider three things:—

1. Work is intended for the fulfilment of the worker.

Job satisfaction is a Biblical concept. The two sentences in Genesis 1: 26 belong together. God said, "Let us make man in our own image," and "let them have dominion." It is because we bear God's image that we share God's dominion. Therefore our potential for creative work is an essential part of our Godlike humanness, and work of some kind is indispensable for our humanness. We are not fully human beings if we do not work. If we are idle instead of working or if we are destructive of the environment instead of creative, we are denying our humanity and the purpose of our creation, and so are forfeiting our own self-fulfilment. We read in Eccl. 3: 22 "There is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work" (compare 2: 24). -

Unfortunately, however, there are immediate problems with some jobs. For example, coal mining involves dirt, discomfort and danger. The factory assembly line involves tedious, repetitive monotony, which could be relieved greatly by good employers and industrialists, through job swapping and innovative team arrangements. So, although employers should do their utmost to relieve the discomfort and danger of certain jobs, even such work as this can yield a measure of job satisfaction.

2. Work is intended for the benefit of the community.

By cultivating the Garden of Eden, Adam was able to feed, and no doubt also clothe, his family and himself. Throughout the Bible the theme of productivity occurred for the benefit of the community. God gave Israel "a land flowing with milk and honey", and in doing so, He commanded that the poor, the alien, the orphan, the widow and other deprived people should share in the productivity of the soil. In the New Testament, Paul told the thief to stop stealing and start working "in order that he may be able to give to those in need" (Eph. 4: 28).

So then, the emphasis throughout the Bible is productivity in service and man is to be productive not only for his own and his family needs but also for the community. The Bible sees work as an important community project, undertaken by the community for the community.

3. Work is intended for the glory of God.

This is the highest level at which we should view work. In a certain sense, and we state it reverently, in the creation God deliberately humbled Himself in order to require the co-operation of man and woman in running the earth. He didn't create an earth which would become productive on its own, He gave human beings dominion over the earth in order that they should make it productive. God didn't plant a garden that would flourish on its own, He appointed a gardener and He humbled Himself to require this gardener. Now quite rightly we ought to emphasise the indispensability of God's part in the co-operation. Paul writes of this co-operation in a spiritual manner in 1 Cor. 3: 6, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." On a material level we can state, we plough the fields and scatter the seeds, but it is again God who causes the seed to sprout. However, we must remember that although it is God who gives the increase, it is human beings who have to do the ploughing, the sowing and the reaping. Martin Luther is reported to have said, "God even milks the cows through you!" God has arranged things that way. God is the creator and man is the cultivator, therefore we have to keep these two things together. Each requires the other. Creation and cultivation; nature and culture; raw materials and craftsmanship. So whatever our job may be farming, teaching, nursing, medicine, law, architecture, engineering, building, the social services, industry, commerce, the media, research, one of the services, the Arts—-we need to see it directly or indirectly as co-operators with God in leading human beings creatively to maturity as well as collaborating with God in the fulfilment of His purposes. "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

In the light of the above three points we now come to a suggested Biblical definition of work. According to God's will as revealed in scripture, work might be defined as: - "The expenditure of manual and mental energy in service which brings fulfilment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God."

In that definition no reference is purposely made to pay, because what is defined here is not employment but work. It is essential to distinguish between work and employment. Though all employment is work, not all work is necessarily employment. Adam was not paid for tilling the Garden of Eden nor does the housewife receive a wage for keeping the home and bringing up the children. Many people do spare-time work in voluntary service for church and community and they are not paid but it is, nevertheless, work! Work, therefore, is a bigger concept than employment, and indeed a much more important one.

The Contemporary Problem of Unemployment

Statistics could be given at length here to indicate just how great this problem of unemployment became in many parts of the largely developed Western world during the 1 970's and early 1980's. and how to a lesser degree it continues today, especially in Ireland, North and South. It will be sufficient to indicate that in the North of Ireland it reached a peak of 17.75% in 1986, while in the South it peaked at 18% in 1986. However, in comparison with the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the unemployment figures for the "third world" are much worse. It is estimated that 35% of the work force of developing countries are presently unemployed (about 300 million people).

We turn immediately from statistics to the human trauma of losing your job, for unemployment is really not a problem of statistics, it is a problem about people. It is not mainly an economic problem, but a personal one. In the West unemployment is largely psychological because there are wage related unemployment benefits, whereas in the developing world it is largely a question of survival.

Industrial psychologists who have studied this matter describe various stages in the trauma of unemployment and have likened the loss of a job to bereavement.

a. Shock
There is a feeling of humiliation. The disbelief that one has been "fired" or declared redundant because of the assurances which may have been given that the job was stable . "Surely this can't be happening to me, there must be some mistake." People can feel very degraded when they lose their job and feel too, that they have become merely a statistic. Now that they are suddenly redundant they feel useless and this is a real blow to their self-image.

b. Denial
During the shock phase the unemployed person may be too numb even to begin to understand what has occurred, but in this denial phase he starts to search for an explanation. Initially, however, he is inclined to pretend that little has changed. Indeed, the idea shared by many at the beginning of their unemployment is that they are on a kind of holiday. This time of transition between jobs for he assumes that he will find another— - is thought of by himself and is presented to his friends as being the same as a holiday. This denial of reality is a kind of psychological armour which protects him from the deep hurt he would experience if he was confronted too early with the full truth of the situation. This helps to explain the tendency for redundancy pay to be spent on lavish holidays and other luxuries. It is also true that sometimes in this denial phase the unemployed person leaves home each morning as if going to work, and returns at the normal time in the evening without telling his wife and children that he has lost his job. He feels that he has to keep up with the pretence that nothing has changed.

c. Frustration
The thing which begins to shatter, at least temporarily, this make-believe, denial phase is signing on "the dole" to receive entitlement to unemployment benefit from the state. The perspex window between the dole queue and the official behind it represents the difference between those who are in their jobs and those who are out. A person can pretend he is on holiday until he repeatedly joins the dole queue, and then the awful reality strikes home again.

Then too, when the unemployed person has a wife and children who are dependent upon him, he may also go to the Supplementary Benefit Office, where he is means tested to see if he is entitled to additional supplementary payment. This means testing for Supplementary Payment can be an extremely painful experience, especially for older workers who had a steady job and expected to be able to look after their families. As Supplementary Benefit is paid only if a person's other sources of income are less than his subsistence needs, many different forms have to be filled in to demonstrate that he is "poor", which can be a further crippling blow to his self-esteem.

This whole experience of going to the local D.S.S. office to "sign on" for either or both of these benefits can be very humbling and frustrating because there is so much waiting involved.

d. Depression and Pessimism
At the beginning of the unemployed's search for a job there can often be anticipation and optimism. He feels that he can get another job in a few weeks by going to the local job centre or scanning the daily newspapers and then sending in his application and accompanying C.V. When there are repeated setbacks, however, and especially when he was short-listed several times to no avail, any optimism there may have been is liable to turn to pessimism and depression.

e. Despair
After perhaps a year or more out of work, struggle and hope very often are gone, and the unemployed's spirit becomes bitter and broken. With savings greatly depleted and job prospects looking bleak, he lapses into inertia and stagnates. He is thoroughly demoralised and dehumanised because he cannot find employment. Once a fortnight he receives a cheque from the D.S.S. and the only job he has to do is sign it before cashing it at his local Post Office.

Part of this despair is loneliness which comes through isolation from former work mates, as well as losing track of time. Indeed, the sight of others setting off for work in the morning encourages him to go to bed late and get up late to avoid observing them.

f. Resignation
In this phase the unemployed person passively accepts his fate. The anxiety and the depression of the "despair" phase lift and the individual settles down to new standards and a different way of life. Feelings of inferiority and submissiveness become more marked, and he feels less able to provide for his needs. The search for a job becomes still more haphazard and may cease altogether.

It is during this final phase that the accumulated effects on health of being out of work may become most apparent. A government survey has shown that jobless people have a tendency to take longer over things, to concentrate less on what they were doing, to become rusty at things they once did well, to have greater difficulty in remembering things and to find it harder in making decisions. Many lose the ability to "crack a joke" and experience a deterioration in physical health, including worsening angina, back problems, bronchitis, high blood pressure and ulcers.

As a footnote to this section on the contemporary problem of unemployment it is worth stating that there are quite a number of eminent sociologists and economists in recent years who have forecast that this problem is constantly liable to fluctuation, but will gradually become worse. According to Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, by the year 2,000 there will be 6,000 million people unemployed in the world. He stated that this will be so partly because developing nations will have become industrially developed. They will be producing steel, ships, aircraft and commodities which will compete in Western markets and displace some Western products. Partly also because of micro-electronics, silicon chips (which will complete the industrial revolution) and computers which will take over the running of factories, the ploughing of fields by driverless tractors and even the diagnosis of disease by doctors. We cannot, apparently, resist, much less stop this process.

This evidently means that unemployment is going to continue to be an enormous economic and social problem, because it is extremely difficult simultaneously to combat the twin problems of inflation and unemployment. Indeed, some contemporary economists argue that one has to choose between them! Today, more than eve', we need Christian economists in positions of responsibility who are primarily concerned about people rather than the mere accumulation of wealth for self-gratification and aggrandisment.

The Christian Response to Work and Unemployment

In the light of the Biblical doctrine of work and the contemporary problem of unemployment, what should be our Christian response? Let us make the following points:—

1. When the Christian becomes suddenly unemployed, we should remember that he too is human and can have negative emotions initially about what has happened. Whatever the unemployment situation and whatever the job prospects may be, however, it is vital to get rid of any bitter and destructive emotions towards his ex-employers and towards God. Continually nursing anger and bitterness inside himself about what has happened will almost certainly hurt him more than anyone. In these circumstances therefore the Christian should constantly seek grace to submit to God's sovereign will, and be guided daily in his attitudes, actions and reactions by the revealed will of God in the scriptures. Verses such as Matt. 10: 29, 30; Rom. 8: 28 and Phil. 4: 6, 7 ought to be of immense value in helping to strengthen the Christian's trust in the Lord and prove to be a timely antidote to sinful anxiety. By means of these and other suitable passages in the Bible he can learn to trust God afresh in the midst of all his current heartache and uncertainty.

2. Sometimes within the Church there are people who need to change their attitude to the unemployed. The so-called Protestant work ethic, which rightly encourages work, is unfortunately misunderstood and applied by them so that they tend to despise those who are unemployed in their struggle for survival. The unemployed are thought of as either shirkers or as weak. No doubt there are shirkers, but many of the unemployed are honestly wanting to find a job and are victims, not of their own weakness or shirking, but of the system, and we need more Christian sympathy towards them in their trauma.

Today it ought not to be a stigma to be unemployed. Paul's dictum in 2 Thess. 3: 10; "If a man won't work, neither let him eat", was addressed to voluntary, and not involuntary unemployment. It was addressed to the lazy and not to the redundant. So the unemployed should be welcomed into our congregations, in order to try to understand and empathise with their trauma and to give them whatever support is needful in a prayerful and practical way.

3. It is important to keep in mind the distinction between work and employment. what really demoralises and dehumanises people is not the lack of employment because they are not in a paid job, it is the lack of work, because they are not using their energies in creative service. Now, understandably, it is the pay packet which gives many people self-respect, and, of course, it is God's intention that we earn our living. Then, too, those receiving unemployment benefit, even though they have contributed to the National Insurance scheme, feel they are spongers on the community. However, we must remember that the significance of work is more important than the pay packet or benefit cheque in giving people self-respect.

People should not be working simply for wages. If that were so, we could pay them for digging holes in the ground and filling them up again; but they would not find job satisfaction in that kind of work! Work needs to be significant and to work significantly without pay can give people self-respect, as for example, in the case of a housewife.

The unemployed Christian needs to seek grace to be self-disciplined. It is so easy just to sit around watching T.V. and doing virtually nothing, because there seems to be nothing to get up for and nothing to do when one does get up. In these circumstances it is important to set regular working hours, just as if one were actually still employed. Proper working hours should be used to go through job advertisements, working at re-writing one's C.V., doing research into firms in the local area to whom one could write, and then one can tidy up and put it all away in the evening and relax with the family.

5. The unemployed Christian should endeavour always to use his time creatively. One of his most pressing needs is to go out of the house regularly and find other interests which are completely different and which will stretch him mentally and physically. He should go regularly, by himself, with a friend or with the family to the local Recreation Centre for physical exercise such as swimming, squash, badminton, soccer, etc.; or he should play tennis, golf or bowls outdoors. He could develop other interests, e.g. photography, which could then be useful both to himself and to the church. There are opportunities to enrol in classes in Adult Education Centres where he could improve his social and practical skills to help others in the community who are gripped by such vices as alcohol abuse, gambling or drug addiction.

6. Some economists suggest that in the future there will need to be extensive work sharing. There will be even shorter working hours, with overtime forbidden, longer holidays and early retirement. This will help to spread the same employment opportunities over more employees, but, of course, the end result would be more leisure for everybody. The question then arises "How does one spend his time during this leisure?" The fourth commandment is not only a commandment to rest one day, but it is also a commandment to work six days. So how do you work six days on, say, a 30 hour week? The only possible answer to that is "creative leisure", which is a form of work. Work and leisure are by no means alternatives. "Do it yourself" improvements in and around the home; servicing the car; self-education in evening classes or Open University; cultivating the garden or allotment and many other interesting activities. There is community service such as visiting hospitals and prisons; decorating the homes of the elderly or working with the mentally handicapped. There are many jobs to be done for those who have the time to do it in voluntary community service.

7. In conjunction with the above responses to unemployment, the government authorities should constantly be pressed for more job creation. In recent years much has been done in various regional policies through job training and job preservation, but they should be encouraged to do more. If, as Christians, we live in an area of serious unemployment, then we ought to join with others in lobbying Members of Parliament, industrialists, employers and T.U.C. leaders for more job creation.

In conclusion, we always need to remember to apply the fundamental Biblical truths already outlined. Men and women by creation are creative. No human being can be properly fulfilled or properly serve God, unless he or she is able to work, expending energy in creative service. People must find an outlet for their creative energies or they will be dehumanised

Christian people today need more than ever to have and develop a Biblical doctrine of work. We need to value our daily work - out employment— - more highly in order to see it as collaboration with God in the service of the community. We need to throw ourselves into it conscientiously and expect to find satisfaction and fulfilment in our work. It is then that we will increasingly realise what a dehumanising thing it is to be out of work, and we will do all we can to support people in that unfortunate situation.

Especially we shall resolve as Christians to remain workers all our lives. Even if we become under-employed or unemployed, and even if the time comes for us to retire, we shall, with God's grace and strength, continue to spend our energies in creative service It is only then that we can fulfil ourselves as human beings and bring benefit to the community and glory to God our wonderful creator.