Review: The Job – Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

Ellen Ruppel Shell is professor of journalism at Boston University and a widely-published author. The Job is one of the very best books (of many dozens) assessing the changing work and employment scene. Part One is about “Our National Jobs Disorder.” It used to be argued that technology is flattening organizations and has liberating, empowering potential for workers at all levels. But as robots and artificial intelligence take over more and more jobs the profits have gone to the few at the top. Workers have not been cut into the profits from the increased productivity and efficiency of technology-driven jobs. What jobs remain after the tech invasion are often unsatisfying and unguaranteed.  

But work is so central to our humanity, identity, and happiness. Shell makes important distinctions between “work” and “job.” We need jobs to earn money and pay our expenses.  We need opportunities to work to find meaning and purpose in developing our gifts and selves, and in serving others in positive ways. She stresses that the unpaid work of raising children or being a community volunteer can very well fulfill our need for good work – but the question of how to pay our bills remains. “Our challenge is helping people find and sustain work that offers them an opportunity to make a contribution, to make them feel worthwhile, and to make meaning for themselves” (p. 320). The “work we desperately want and need to get done [is] caring work, creative work, building work, healing work, artistic work” (p. 321). Wow: sounds just like the theology and philosophy of work of people made in the image and likeness of the Creator and Healer.

Shell provides convincing historical research and statistics along with many stories of working individuals coping with bad jobs and unemployment as well as finding places to flourish. There are stories of successful transitions from financially rewarding but meaningless jobs to creative entrepreneurship of various kinds. Shell argues that our educational system focuses too much on acquiring the latest (narrow) list of job skills, and not nearly enough on the broader humanities goals of shaping lives and minds for meaningful work and citizenship. The thrust of her book is in part that individuals need to get free from the kind of job obsession that leads to stress and unhappiness and think more creatively about how to find good work.  

But she also is certain that “our work disorder is about a deficit of political will to frame the challenges clearly and honestly” (p. 319). We need a refocused, shared set of principles and priorities that recognize the essential importance of good work opportunities. A “health care system that uncouples good work from good health” and “remove(s) health care costs from business ledgers” would be part of such a response, freeing us from our desperation to find any job with health care coverage. Finding ways to value and compensate caregivers, teachers, and artists is also essential. So the answer is not just a simplistic “bring back those coal mining jobs” or “bring those low wage garment worker jobs back to the USA” strategy but a more far reaching change, something like a society-wide recognition that everyone has a “right to meaningful work” (as well as a “right to basic health care).” Where is the political will? Where is the leadership for such a move on the scale of FDR’s New Deal?

I would just point out that there is something in between the individual and the state: the church. It is impossible to load all responsibility on autonomous individuals – and it is utopian to wait for Washington or Sacramento to solve our work challenges (nor is hoping for Wall Street and corporate leadership very promising). Churches can start teaching and practicing the holistic discipleship of their Bibles – empowering and mobilizing their people for workplace creativity and discipleship. It has been done before and is happening now in various places. We need more of this!

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