Whatever Happened to the Virtue of Work?

Is work really a necessary evil as some would say? Is it something to be endured until the weekend arrives? Many think so…where did this thinking come from?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain, there was a great exodus of people from rural areas to cities seeking work in the factories and metal works created by the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution. British towns grew too fast and infrastructure and services lagged behind with poor sanitation, filthy streets and over-crowded housing. Horror stories of the workhouses and industrial workplaces were well documented through the tales of writers like Charles Dickens.

Yet despite these problems, people still flocked from areas of rural poverty to new, industrial workplaces for their survival, and because they aspired to obtain better lives. And human life did improve. Death rates dropped, life expectancy rose, wages rose over time, and food supplies and diets improved. Famine and plague came to an end. Average working hours shrunk and the cost of goods substantially decreased. Technological leaps since the early 1700s delivered extraordinary gains in human prosperity and quality of life.

With such success where did the devaluing of work come from? Somewhere along the way during this amazing transformation, many of the educated classes stopped believing in work as essential to survival, beneficial, a source of pride, a virtue. They’ve come to characterize work as a negative.

Perhaps the origins of this mindset are linked to nineteenth-century political philosopher Karl Marx, who saw a working class exploited by business owners. To Marx, the source of exploitation wasn’t so much the conditions of nineteenth-century factories but the act of a business owner making a profit. Marx saw a world of finite resources which business owners and workers would increasingly battle over until the system eventually collapsed in on itself, leading to communist utopia. As history shows it did not.

Technology increased resources, reduced need and made people better off. Actually, it was those states founded on Marxist ideology that experienced economic collapse. But, even as Marxist economies came and went, the idea of work as a form of exploitation has stuck and taken on a life of its own. The Apostle Paul writing from Corinth to the believers at Thessalonica couldn’t disagree more.

Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep. Friends, don’t slack off in doing your duty.2 Thessalonians 3:10-13 The Message

For the Christian today God’s desire is for you to work and enjoy the fruit of your labor. Learn and get better at your task and you will get a better reward…you will enjoy greater prosperity. According to Paul this is pleasing to both God and man.

Source: Nyunggai Warren Mundine in Quillette,

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