On the Subject of Work


Amidst a series of business news snippets in last week’s The Economist magazine, I came across one that I found rather striking: Saudia Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund recently invested $3.5 billion into Uber, the popular ride-sharing company. Following its latest round of financing, The Economist notes that Uber is estimated to be worth more than General Motors. What is striking, I think, is the change that such valuation and investing represents in the kinds of employment that are being supported and will be supported in the future. One only needs to consider the plight of Detroit to recognize that the age of stable employment for large numbers of adults (mostly men) in the manufacturing sector is over. The rise of companies like Uber represents the coming of an age of less stable employment for large masses of people; detractors tend to refer this kind of employment as ‘precarious’, while supporters refer to it as ‘flexible’. I think that it can be either depending on the attendant circumstances (e.g. whether one has good family and community supports, whether one is involuntarily working part-time, whether one has access to good forms of social security, etc.). Images of protesting taxi drivers clashing with Uber drivers represents, in small, larger tensions about the future of work. In this post, I don’t want to speculate about the effects that disruptive technologies will have on forms of employment that have historically supported the middle class, but rather on a guiding question that should inform any Christian view on the matter. The question is to what extent these changes in work will affect human flourishing, where each worker is seen as having dignity and worth being made in the image of God.

In his encyclical Laborem exercens, St. John Paul II addresses the issue of human work and he marks an important distinction between the subject and the object of work. The subject is the one doing the work (i.e. the worker) and the object is the thing produced by the work. St. John Paul II argues that we tend to think about the object of work, without reference to the subject of work – in other words, by thinking about the production of objects without thinking about the inherent dignity of the workers producing these objects. The first thought this might call to mind is greedy capitalist bosses exploiting their workers by focusing on the maximization of profit above all else. But this failure to think is not the exclusive purview of the 1%. We the 99% also often only think about the object of work: for example, whenever we purchase an item without thinking about its provenance or invest in a mutual fund or receive a pension without investigating the sources of its revenue. I’m not saying that we should divest ourselves of all these things, but rather that we should think about the effect that our economic choices, however small, have on workers in our community. Hannah Arendt, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, famously argued that the greatest evils come about from the widespread failure to think reflectively about our interactions with others. I’m not a futurist, but we’re clearly in a period of widespread change in the patterns of work that characterize and sustain the communities we live in. In the midst of such change, it’s important to seriously reflect on how new forms of work affect the well-being of workers (particularly those who are marginalized by race and class, for they are the most vulnerable). I don’t think that it is necessarily immoral to use Uber, but it would behoove us to think about how our actions in the market affect the dignity and work of those around us. Reflection about how to safeguard and promote these things should guide the economic choices we make, especially as we take seriously the call to love God above all else and our neighbour as ourselves.