At Work & Economics 101

There’s Dignity in Productivity, No Matter The Job

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Mike Rowe, famous for his show “Dirty Jobs,” recently stated, “Good work implies the existence of bad work. Bad work suggests the existence of bad jobs. If you go into the world with an expectation that you have a category of good jobs and a category of bad jobs, then you’re going to be informed to act accordingly…”

All work is worthy of respect. Rowe may be championing the so-called “dirty jobs” that Silicon Valley is attempting to mechanize with Star Wars-like androids, but the output of our hands and minds reflects a deeper portrait of human significance.

God spoke galaxies and microcosms into being and into action. While we humans are made in the image of God, we do not carry that capability. We are required to operate as independent agents of change, performing an action to achieve a given output. Nothing happens without inertia, and our human agency—our God-given free will—must initiate the cause. This productivity, in any form, is dignified and worthwhile because our productive, creative actions fulfill the very first instructions we see in scripture: filling, subduing, and ruling the earth God created.

In Genesis 2:15, God makes clear one of our purposes on earth: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” The question that naturally arises—especially in a modern, urban environment—is how does this apply to us? How do we best work the garden? Anne Bradley summarizes how best to do so in her book, Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

Economic Thinking as the Path to Productivity

The thesis of Bradley’s booklet is that by understanding basic economics, humanity is best able to steward the garden—the gifts and resources at hand. While a complete understanding of Austrian School of Economic thought is not necessary to fulfill our purpose, general economic principles can, and will, help us to make the garden grow.

Opportunity costtrade-offs, and scarcity all play a role in determining what tasks we touch or prioritize. Humans can, and do, quantify which tasks generate more value; however, comparative advantage, the ability of an individual or group to carry out a particular economic activity more efficiently than another activity, demonstrates that all work contributes to the flourishing of society, and should be praised.

While different types of work can be more or less productive, productivity of any kind is obviously better than the alternative. The sole plane of our ethic cannot only be efficiency; we can easily imagine the drain on our families and communities if efficiency is used to squeeze out other virtues. However, without efficiency and productivity, tasks are not accomplished and progress of any kind does not occur.

Productivity Measures Change, but the Intrinsic Value of Work Remains

While modern society currently places higher monetary value on mental work than on manual labor, this cultural preference does not diminish the innate value, or the necessity and meaning that can be found in the “dirty” manual job. Every kind of labor still accomplishes the Creator’s goals and provides purpose to what is otherwise just another day in the office or on the construction site.

What is the future of work, and how will changes in technology and automation affect our understanding of what work is? It is hard to determine. Thought leaders on this topic, such as John Hagel, believe that, “The essence of redefining work is shifting all workers’ time, effort, and attention from executing routine, tightly defined tasks to identifying and addressing unseen problems and opportunities.”

The seismic forces of technology will continue to shape the very nature of work and productivity itself. Job growth will continue to trend in the direction of mental labor over the physical and away from routine tasks. The scope of a particular job will become harder to define as the outputs of human productivity become more nebulous. But while the outputs of productivity will almost certainly change, the need for work and the purpose found in it will not.

All work, manual or mental, is worthy of dignity and respect. Without work, gardens go wild, skyscrapers cease to rise, books fail to be written, robots stop being coded, and diapers fail to be changed. Without work, change does not occur. Without work, God’s purposes do not progress, and we do not fully reflect God’s nature.

Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Mar. 6, 2019.

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