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The gift of work



Amid the disruption of predictable life wrought by the coronavirus, governments have focused on jobs. Jobs lost in the response to the virus, and jobs created as we emerge from the crisis. The focus is worthy — behind each job lost is a person whose life has become anxious and uncertain. The language, however, is concerning. Defining the challenge as one of creating jobs expresses an understanding of work, the inadequacy of which the coronavirus has laid bare. It has deep roots in a long cultural history.

Man with briefcase (Marten Bjork/Unsplash)

Within the Christian strand of Western culture work was seen as a punishment that followed the Fall. In Paradise people would not have had to work. When driven into the world as we know it, however, they had to earn their bread by sweat and tears. In many societies heavy work was done by slaves, while their wealthy owners could dedicate themselves to higher activities. In Athens citizens could participate in the public life and rich culture of Athens because they possessed slaves to undertake manual labour. Among educated Romans the ideal human condition was one of leisure in which they could devote oneself to the life of the mind. This demanded independent wealth or patronage.

The simultaneous devaluing of manual labour as punishment and the reliance on it to build the prosperity that enabled emancipation from toil shaped an attitude that has endured. People in government see no contradiction between making the conditions of ordinary workers as unpleasant as possible and punishing and shaming those who cannot find work.

In agricultural societies work was often set within a pattern of stable relationships between landowners and workers that expressed mutual responsibilities. As these relationships became fragmented by the privatisation of public lands, however, those relationships were eroded and became one-sided as wage-slavery in the Industrial Revolution. Into this world of changing relationships the word ‘job’ first appeared. It referred to short term work undertaken for personal gain. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary is a mine of moral judgments based on traditional social relationships, defined a job as ‘a low, mean, lucrative busy affair.’ Every word of the definition expressed distaste.

Jobs were unsocial, and often antisocial, affairs that traded security for short-term financial gain, and did the dirty work of an unjust social order. The distaste was expressed also in the use of ‘job’ to describe public positions awarded on the basis of whom you knew and not on your qualifications — jobs for the boys, as we might say today.

That, of course, was then, and now is now. The salient elements in this story are the ambivalent attitude to menial and manual work by people who are emancipated from it, and the recurrent tendency to strip away the relationships that give workers security and respect their dignity. Work is then reduced to a financial transaction between a powerful employer and relatively powerless and insecure employee. In Johnson’s terms, work becomes a job, stripped of its setting in a wider framework of social relationships and mutual responsibility. Precisely because it eats away at the complex and rich set of relationships on which society depends, it ultimately imperils the narrowly economic relationships on which prosperity depends.


'Work is at the intersection of many interlocking relationships that define human beings. It is not just something that people do, but forms part of their identity and gives meaning to their life.'


At one level it does not matter whether governments speak of work or of jobs. It may be no more than a question of semantics. It does matter, however, that they reflect on and address the effects that contemporary reduction of work to jobs was having even before the coronavirus arrived. These include treating employees as contractors, the expansion of casual employment in universities and firms, the license given to gig enterprises whose business model is based on casual employment, the lack of government interest and of regulatory action in the face of systematic underpayment of workers, and the Pollyannaish definition of employment to include people in part-time employment and underemployment. The insecure and dependent nature of work in Australia and the gross inequality of wealth to which it has contributed were expressed in the inability or reluctance of people to spend, and so in the inability of firms to sell the goods and services they produced. If jobs rather than work are again to be the focus of policy, it is hard to see how the economy will grow equitably.

The coronavirus has made evident the inconsistency between the esteem in which workers in different industries are held and the value of their work to the community. Meatworkers, people working in nursing homes and hospitals, people delivering food and cleaners are the least protected and most scorned of workers, but in this time of crisis the community has relied on their self-sacrifice and service far more than on that of lawyers and managers. That mismatch surely demands that the remuneration and conditions of people in unfashionable work be adjusted to match the importance of what they do.

The distinction between work and jobs raises serious questions about attitudes to work, to unemployment and to the value placed on different kinds of work. A proper attitude to work (and to jobs) sees it as much more than an economic contract between employer and employee. Work is at the intersection of many interlocking relationships that define human beings. It is not just something that people do, but forms part of their identity and gives meaning to their life. A qualified but unemployed immigrant stands taller at home and in his community when wearing a suit and carrying a brief case to work. A young woman unable to study and without work grows as a human being when finding work in a supermarket or café.

Through work we form relationships with the world outside ourselves, immediately with our fellow workers, then with supervisors and managers, with the people whom our enterprise serves and with our world through the value of what we do. The wage we are paid, too, is significant not merely because it can buy things, but because it gives us freedom to do so. Work is a symbol of the value others see in us and builds confidence in ourselves that helps us to grow. The economic aspects of our working relationship are only a small part of their human value.

Another way of putting this is that in all relationships, including economic relationships, there is an unquantifiable element of gift. In work an employer recognises the gift that the person employed is in consenting to work. The employee recognises the gift that the employer is in recognising his value as a human being. The mutual gift entailed in the economic relationship entails a duty of mutual respect.

This aspect of work, of course, cannot be legislated for fully, but it dictates an attitude that must find expression in policies and regulation of work. Counting jobs is not enough.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image:  (Marten Bjork/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, jobs, work, economy



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Existing comments

Marvellous insights! Thank you.

James O'Brien | 13 August 2020  

Andrew Hamilton has in my opinion outlined the christian concept of work very clearly. Unfortunately to my knowledge there is no organisation within the church {Catholic} that is set up to follow this most important question. In the past many Catholics were involved in many of the work related issues of their day, during the 50s that connection was broken. For such an insightful article to be lost amongst the volume of opinion pieces today would be devastating in my opinion. In my experience the best way to keep this question alive is for people who work to become organised and so maintain the ideas.

Kevin Vaughan | 13 August 2020  

Jesus was a manual worker. He was a carpenter/builder like St Joseph. It was very important in the Jewish society of his day to make sure your son had a means of earning his living. I think much of his wisdom came from his normal working life and his interaction with family and friends. I am glad that, where I live in Brisbane, there are many tradies around. There used to be a tradition of decent tradespeople raising their sons in the Christian faith and sending them out into the world as morally functioning adults. It will be a pity if robots replace people in the trades. So much manual and clerical work has been exported and people no longer expect a lifetime job unless they are extremely fortunate. Unemployment is a curse and we still have a workhouse mentality about it. The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic could make conditions worse. Do we want a society where there is an increasing difference between extreme wealth and poverty? Can we do something about this? There are always things we can do. We need to find and activate them.

Edward Fido | 13 August 2020  

A very thoughtful essay Andrew. I am now retired, having worked for almost exactly five decades as a Public Servant and a High School Teacher . I was a union member my entire working life. Since the days of John Howard's "Work Choices' (defeated??) we have seen the power of Employers grow as "neo liberalism" destroyed the Union Movement. The ALP sadly played a role in that collapse, particularly under Bob Hawke /Paul Keating's "Accord" . "Globalization" with offshore workers paid 'peanuts' in slave labor conditions, so we consumers "could have it all" , has not helped. Fraudulent underpayment of workers, casualization of the workforce , outsourcing by governments and dodgy work place agreements have all played a role in this state of affairs . The Covid-19 Pandemic has exposed the rot in all its horrific splendor . The future of work and society's role is at a turning point. I fear greatly for my children and grandchildren's futures .They aspire for what we have achieved but most likely will never achieve their dreams. Despite PM Morrison's "Snap Back" it is a total illusion. There will be no 'snap back' . The future for our young people is bleak indeed. Where is the Catholic Church's Social Justice call to to action in all of this? Sorry I can't hear you!!

Gavin O'Brien | 14 August 2020  

The role of work that has produced society's needs has not changed technology changed the nature of work. Machines that replaced manual intensive work has reached it's summit in today's technology. The issue is dose it continue to serve the masters or society's needs?.

REG WILDING | 14 August 2020  

An interesting essay...it reminds us of how many Western persons identified themselves by their skills in work, commonly taking the trade as their surname, like Taylor, Cartwright, Goldsmith...it wasn't just what they did it became their identity. I'd venture to say that few who are scraping a living in the gig economy would identify the casual roles like drivers or packers feel that same trade security. The concept of a life long career is still being sold by our educational institutions but the numbers aren't stacking up while we have university graduates taking casual positions and so many underemployed because there are so few "gift" vacancies... Now the Australian government is selling STEM subjects to students with the clever ruse of increasing the cost of non-STEM courses! It seems awful to make our youth choose a career path with an added influence of what is more affordable than what they'd freely choose.

ray | 17 August 2020  

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