On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 3: How Mankind Discovered “Going to Work”)

9. If our point of departure in understanding modernity is “that moment in which some humans decided they were modern,” then the epochal fracture would have to be located in the 19th century. One could describe the transitions of that century along many vectors (political, national, religious, culture, mobility, economics, etc), but perhaps the most concrete access point is simply to describe the massive transition in human subsistence patterns in which the 19th century plays the role of “hinge point.” One way of capturing the transition is to say that once upon a time, nobody “went to work” or “had a job.” Until the 19th century, the average human existence was a subsistence existence – centered in a household. Men and women lived most of their lives alongside one another, and work was very immediately related to life. This might have been supplemented by bartering, trading, or selling craft goods, farm products, or services in a modest marketplace. Crucially, however, work was not primarily tied to acquiring wages in order to purchase goods. Rather, work was quite immediately for life. This was possible, in part, because previous civilizations typically possessed a fairly thick commons, unowned resources that were available for subsistence (or perhaps, partially “owned” property that took public “use-rights” for granted). The progressive evaporation of the commons coincided with the general shift of the human population (especially in the West) toward cities. Survival in the cities, of course, depends upon earning wages to acquire goods that used to be more immediate (housing, food, etc). Modern suburbs are, naturally, an outgrowth of this. 

10. This gradual trend was nascent when the Reformers first started writing about “vocation,” and was growing by the time the Puritans reflected theologically upon labor, but it became a definitive feature of the modern world during the long 19th century (1789-1921). In this world, “getting a job” is an ordinary feature of life. Most persons are born into a context where access to the resources that make living possible are entirely mediated through access to money. And so people must strategize how they might train themselves to be a competitive product in the “marketplace,” such that they can acquire the money necessary to survive. This system, of course, has produced the unprecedented reality of the modern socially mobile middle class. It has also, however, fundamentally changed the character of “work.” Ivan Illich points out that “work” is now consciously divided between wage-earning work, and what he calls (in a book of the same title) “shadow work,” the enormous amount of human activity around wage-earning that is now cut off from the immediate reward of subsistence, and increasingly becomes coded as a liability. For instance, the work of the housewife is necessary to take care of the man who “leaves the home” in order to acquire the wages to provide for a home in the first place. But the “home” is increasingly a center of consumption rather than production. The work of the housewife, in a world less heavily dependent on wages, just was the work of living, and was done alongside a close-by husband.  Children were necessary both to aid with one’s subsistence, but also to care for one’s self in later life (just as it would likewise be ordinary to care for one’s own parents). But in our era, all of this “costs money” and is coded as a liability that one may elect to refuse or to take up, or simply outsource. Formerly, subsistence often depended on establishing a household. Now, the larger the household, the larger the “liability.” In this context, “going to work” is the thing that one does outside the household to sustain the consumption patterns inside a household. Illich points out that many languages still do not have an equivalent of the English “work” in the sense of some reified thing that one “goes to” five days a week. He also points out that much of the tension between genders in the 20th century should be read against the backdrop of recent economic innovation rather than any classical gender arrangement.

11. The benefits of this system, it would seem, come alongside certain risks, tendencies, and inevitabilities. Work and life are increasingly separated, and the nature of “work” is increasingly a matter of market demand rather than immediate necessity and personal aptitude. And while there are gradual compensations for this in our social order (one must keep workers happy, after all), the driving impetus is frequently not the common good as such – but rather the special interests of some persons over others. And so while labor and dignity are often found together, there remains a whole mass of unskilled laborers who have been quite directly “cultivated” into unskilled existence. Typically, they work in the service or retail industries with no company share and little social mobility. This circumstance complicates any discussion of a Protestant doctrine of vocation. Being a dependent who is basically forced to take up any job in order to acquire money is not a good paradigm case for seeing the relationship between vocation and one’s labor. Rooted in creation, and in God’s “placing” His gifts in men to go give to their neighbor, a Christian politics must demur when human political and economic arrangements fundamentally fail to honor the sacred bond between a laborer and the work of their hands (which ideally remain largely free and creative). This does not mean that a doctrine of vocation has nothing to say in such a circumstance. Indeed, the most extreme form of this is just slavery, and the New Testament (as well as Martin Luther) are quite explicit about how the slave exercises a dominion of love in the face of injustice and the absence of any recourse to just war (The book to read is Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation). Nevertheless, inasmuch as the doctrine of vocation has ever been transformed into a project for the common good, we witness a concern for the felt ownership of a worker relative to his work. However, one must not misunderstand this view as sentimental, as though good work were always profound and enchanted rather than banal and menial. The latter is part of life, but there is a difference between enduring the banality of one’s own affairs versus enduring the banality of another’s for wages. This is the crucial distinction. Whatever renders the latter morally plausible as a common trend in our civilization requires the probing of mind and conscience. And indeed, some thought has already been given to this. The rise of co-ops in recent times is a promising development. In some quarters, there is increasing sentiment that economic life ought to be recentered in the household, and that any labor given to another for wages ought to involve at least some co-share in the fruits of that labor in the form of partial sovereignty (share) over the common product. In short, there are some trends in the direction of self-ownership. 

12. Nevertheless, as Richard Sennett has long argued, there remain alarming trends in (now) post-industrial work life. The reality of “having a job” is currently in the process of changing. Most persons born after 1980, for instance, have many jobs throughout their life rather than just one. This evaporates the sense of personal identity (a coherent life-narrative) and community that often attended various blue collar jobs a generation ago. But even in the white collar world of skilled labor, there are other forms of increased career dependence. Persons in well-paid positions very often are “switched” from one title to another, and frequently have a re-defined position or stake in their company based upon developments far outside their control. And so just as there is an alarming tendency toward the consolidation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, so there is an alarming evaporation of self-ownership as it pertains to the work itself into fewer and fewer hands. In all of these things, the doctrine of vocation encourages the Christian to endure the effects of the fall while serving one’s neighbor (in common projects) around them, but it also animates the Christian to pursue the good in respect of human labor. To the extent that the modern economy tears asunder work from the life of the worker, the Christian impulse is precisely to keep joined what God (in creation) made together. Indeed, in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Question 141) includes under the “duties” of the 8th commandment (concerning stealing), “an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.” Note especially that the goal is not just the furthering of the “wealth” of others, but their “outward estate,” which cannot but include a certain dignified co-rule on their part, a recognition of their independence and co-sovereignty. All of this, ironically, from the alleged architects of modern capitalism. But I digress. I will go on to describe the effects of this epochal transition in Western spiritual life.


Related Articles

Other Articles by

An Army of Elder Brothers

In a fatherless age, how do older brothers step in? Joseph Minich reflects on 10 years of Davenant.

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This