Man with helmet

This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.

Why do we have to do so much work? Why do so many people suffer stress through long hours, while others are unemployed?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors characteristically worked for 20 hours a week. Philip Esler tells us that in the ancient Roman Empire even slaves were not expected to work after midday. According to the medievalist David Boyle, speaking at the Hay Festival in 2010,

for a small farmer in the 12th century to make a sufficient amount to live on for a year, he would be able to take 170 days’ holiday. The trend ever since, it seems, has been for work to take over. In 1495, he estimated, such a person would have to work 15 weeks of the year, but by 1564 the figure was 40 weeks and in 2010 most British households require two adults to work full-time to support a home and family.

In 1973 Fritz Schumacher in his best-selling book Small is Beautiful proposed that, the more labour-saving technology we have, the busier we are:

The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.

The role of work

Why do we need to work so much longer than our less technological ancestors did?

Defenders of our current work ethic usually appeal to our longer lifespans and better quality of life. Although there is some truth in both, there is nowhere near enough to explain our workoholic culture.

Most of our longer life expectancy is down to the absence of war, the reduction of infant mortality, and medical technology keeping the terminally ill alive longer.

As for the quality of life, it is impossible to make fair judgements. Almost everybody alive today wouldn’t want to live in 12th century conditions, but the people who were alive then probably wouldn’t want to live in ours – any more than the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon basin do. On the other hand, one thing we can say with confidence is that, for the overwhelming majority of people in Britain today, the quality of life would be better if they didn’t have to spend so much time in paid employment to earn money.

Godly and ungodly work

When we reflect on the attitudes to work expressed in the Hebrew scriptures and the teaching of Jesus we find a completely different picture. There, the world has been created to give us the things we need. Sunshine and rain, water and food, are given for us to enjoy. We are also given muscles and brains, and the ability to be creative with what we have been given. From this biblical and Christian perspective, work should never have become the chore it now is.

Why did it? Secular society changes the picture. In the secular account the necessities of life are not given. They just happen to be there. So there is no reason to suppose there is enough for everyone. Or that, even if there is enough, there will be enough tomorrow. Since there are no guarantees, there is no security. Perhaps next year a meteor will arrive from outer space and smash our planet to bits. Perhaps global warming was going to happen anyway and wipe us all out. Oh dear.

Secular myths about work

Once we conceive of the world like that, there is a huge amount that needs to be done. In the absence of God, only humans can plan for the future. We must do all we can to limit the downsides of human life and avert dangers.

So we create a myth of humanity-as-a-whole pitted against the forces of nature. We need to win. To win, we must work hard. We must be guided by our economic experts. And we end up being manipulated by them, made to work harder and harder. In response to our resentment we are taught to demonise people who don’t work hard.

It isn’t just capitalism that pushes us in this direction. Marxism does too, with its labour theory of value, telling us that everything valuable is the product of human labour.

One of the most absurd results of this ideology is the way we have confused work with paid employment. If you’ve ever looked for work in a jobcentre, or applied for welfare benefits, you will have noticed the bizarre meaning of ‘work’. It no longer means doing something useful. It means doing anything – anything – that somebody else is willing to pay you for. If a millionaire employs you to sit at home twiddling your thumbs, the twiddling counts as work. Changing your baby’s nappies doesn’t.

From a Christian perspective – and indeed from the perspective of most faith traditions – the things that are most valuable to us are given. The proper response is to receive them with gratitude and share them with whoever is in need. When we trust the giver, the amount of work still needing to be done is much less.

Work as a curse or a blessing

Behind the political rhetoric and the policies of the political parties lies a question about human nature: how can a society ensure that the necessary work gets done?

Pessimists argue that, human nature being what it is, the work wouldn’t get done unless people were threatened – with poverty or starvation or something equally unpleasant. So we need strong governments to bully us. Work is a curse but it has to be done.

This is easier to believe if you’re an atheist, or have an equally pessimistic theology.

If on the other hand you think a good god has designed us to flourish and enjoy life, you are more likely to have a more optimistic view of work. People don’t like to sit around idly all the time. When we are not exhausted by too much pressure of things needing to be done, we like to contribute to the common good.

This more optimistic view is easier to reconcile with evolutionary theory, which tells us we have survived because our instincts encourage us to do what needs doing. Anyway our ancestors did what needed doing long before there were any governments at all. If they hadn’t, our species would have died out.

The curse of work

Our political culture is dominated by the pessimistic view. It tells us people have to be incentivised to work – the rich by being paid even more, the poor by being paid even less. Because it doesn’t work, government after government sets out to do more of the same.

People of my age can remember when things were different. My career was in the Church of England. I was given three years’ training, and set to work in 1976. I had some supervision for the next five years, but basically I was trusted to get on with it. Later things changed. The arrival of photocopiers, and then computers, made it easier for hierarchies to demand the endless filling in of forms. Statistics could then be produced, to curse senior managers with the illusion that they knew what was going on.

So we end up with our top-down system. The people at the top decide what needs to be done. Instructions descend from there down the hierarchy, obliging everybody to do whatever their line manager thinks will please the next line manager up. Except for the people at the very top, everybody in ‘work’ is a slave of the system.

This change has been across the board. Teachers, social workers and countless others who can remember that far back can tell the same story. The professional’s career prospects mostly depend on one all-important skill: not delivering the core service, but filling in forms.

No amount of form-filling can describe everything that is going on. Our present work culture not only misleads the controllers of statistics into thinking they know more than they do: by enslaving employees to the top-down system it demotivates them.

Work as a blessing

A more optimistic account of work would organise it differently. It would trust people with more freedom to judge for themselves how to perform their role in each situation.

However, there is a corollary. Most people in employment are being pushed to work harder than they want. Many experience stress as a result. Given more freedom, they would do less.

Would it matter? On paper, yes. It would be a disaster for all the targets. The economic statistics would decline. On the other hand, it would be good for the planet we’re destroying, good for the health of overworked employees and good for children as their parents would have more time to spend with them.


A more optimistic society, trusting workers more, would make greater allowances for human variety. Hard work is not a virtue.

Unless something has gone drastically wrong, every community contains a rich variety of personalities and abilities among its members. Some like to be active doing things. Some like to sit and think. Some naturally take responsibility for whatever needs doing. Some depend heavily on others and can’t do much themselves. Some think through how to make everybody happy, some don’t have a clue what’s going on. Provided that there are enough people able and willing to do what needs doing, there is no need to pressurise others to work harder.

We could vote for a government that didn’t make work such a curse, that didn’t make so many of us do things we are not good at, that didn’t create jobs that don’t really need doing at all.

Then we would have more time to reflect on the generosity of Planet Earth, and give thanks to its Creator.