Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 2 — the drive to work

Part one of this series considered the changing (disrupted) economic landscape and the future of work (and the idea of a post-work future), it suggested Christians might have reason to be optimistic about a disrupted future, perhaps especially if we take up the challenge of being disrupters — challenging the idolatry of work, and profit, the understanding of humanity that suggests we’re fundamentally economic beings, and the routines of work that mean we feel busier than ever. In order to get to a stage where some of these changes become plausible these next two posts are going to step back and consider why we work, what work is (and what its purpose is). 

The drive to work

Do you work to live, or live to work?

Do you work to pay the bills, or to change the world?

How do you think most of your friends would answer these questions?

Our jobs often involve repetition that is frustrating (not to mention the frustration around results) — and its not just the daily routine of alarm clock, breakfast, the commute, the recurring functions of your job (the admin, the reproduction of tasks, the meetings), it’s also the ‘rat race’ the work to eat/eat to work, and work to rest/rest to work cycles built into the monotony that become habitual liturgies in this worship. We’re shaped before we know it, and taught to love things (like money and productivity) by this frustrating and frustrating pattern but we keep doing it. We’re driven to. So why is that? What gives us this drive to work, or rather to ‘work-as-worship’? And why do we want to escape?

This little short animation that ran before Disney’s Moana over the summer is a nice little picture of the tension we live in.

When I ubered to the airport in Sydney a few weeks ago, my driver’s name was Roman. He’d come to Australia from New Zealand, but before that, was from the Middle East. We talked about parenting. About how hard it is. About the pressure society places on kids to grow up to fast, and about how parents get no down time. He loved Uber cause he could be home at dinner time, then head back out. He worked to support his wife and kids. He worked to secure their future. This purpose gave him the drive to do a relatively mundane job (and one he is way over-qualified for).

Here’s why I think we work. We work because we want to change the future; not just the present. We work because we want to carve something out for ourselves and those we love. We want to shape the world in some way — either directly in the act of making things, or creating order, or indirectly in what we use the products of our work for. The way we want to shape the world, the thing we want to carve out, or the version of ourselves we’re working towards are a product of our values (the things we love), and our values are a product of, or ordered by, our ultimate loves (the things we worship).

Work is an act of worship. And I don’t just mean this in the ‘Christian sense’ but in the David Foster Wallace sense of worship being the act of self-sacrifice for the object of our ultimate love. Work either is that love, or it’s a means to serving that love with what we’re paid for work (or both).

Work involves the sacrifice of your time, energy, some sort of ‘presence in order to apply energy’ (even if remotely and via a computer), effort, and intellect; ideally in work that sacrifice reaps something more rewarding than what you’ve invested into the enterprise, but these things are finite. Your time and energy are going to be exhausted. The number of breaths you take is finite. You have an expiry date. And in that sense everything we do is ‘sacrifice’ and the returns are limited. So the decision to go to work is a decision to sacrifice yourself to, or for, something. A cause, a company, your family, your experiences, your pleasure, your empire. If we’re driven to work for some finite thing, especially if we’re driven to work in order to get or consume more stuff because we worship wealth, and comfort, and ‘the things of this world’…. then as Wallace says, it ‘will eat you alive,’ the catch is, if we’re driven to work in a way that consumes us (without giving back), so that we can consume stuff (without giving back), then it’s also likely our drive to work is destroying the planet (ironic really, if we consider climate change and the emissions created by a consumer-first approach to driving to work (where apparently the average occupancy rate per car in Brisbane is something like 1.2 people)).

Brian Walsh wrote this book called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God In A Dangerous Time back in 1994. It’s one of those books that, when read in hindsight, seems prescient, prophetic even, and that you wish had been read more widely and taken more seriously by the church. He writes about work, and how Christians might subvert, or disrupt, how work happens. He talks about how the stuff that drives us to work — that we sacrifice for — is tied to worship.

“Modern culture has entered into a covenant with an unholy trinity. Three good dimensions of creation, three good dimensions of our culture-forming tasks have been absolutised. They have been erected as idols and they demonically distort our cultural lives. These three idols are scientism (the belief that science provides us with authoritative knowledge and functions as the omniscient source of revelation in our culture), technicism (the effective translation of scientific knowledge into power and control of the creation which promises us a scientific-technical omnipotence), and economism (the golden head of the idol that believes that a rising standard of living is the ultimate goal in life and the only route to personal happiness and societal harmony). The question for our time is whether this unholy covenant is still tenable. Do these gods deliver on their promises? Can we continue to make the sacrifices necessary to appease them? My answer to all of these questions is a resounding no…

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good.”

Disrupting this drive to work

Walsh’s analysis 23 years ago is pretty similar to Rod Dreher’s analysis in his Benedict Option (and the observations of a bunch of other modern thinkers. His analysis is that it’s not politics or sex that presents the greatest danger to us in terms of ‘idolatry’ or Babylonian captivity; but economics.

The reason for this state of affairs—nothing less than a spiritual catastrophe in the Western church—is, I submit, the enculturation of the church. As a community of believers and as individuals we have, mostly against our best intentions, been thoroughly sucked in to our secular culture. This is what I mean by the term “enculturation.” Our consciousness, our imagination, our vision has been captured by idolatrous perceptions and ways of life. The dominant worldview, the all-pervasive secular consciousness, has captured our lives. And what is so intriguing about this phenomenon is that we were not taken after a long drawn-out fight. No, it happened in our sleep. You see, while we were fighting with each other about evolution, the infallibility of the Bible, spiritual gifts, and various other hotly debated issues, we were falling into a deeper and deeper sleep in relation to the cultural captivity of our very consciousness. We were asleep to the secularisation of our lives and of our most fundamental values. We simply bought into the materialistic, prestige oriented, secular values of our age without ever noticing that that is what was going on.

What he suggests as the antidote for this captivity is a rediscovery of our own story; our own worship; a new drive to work. If we’re going to disrupt the economic status quo (ala post one in this series) as Christians we need to consider how our drive to work might look different (the sort of work we do, why we do it, and how we do it).

Christians have a different approach to work because we have a different approach to worship (or rather, we worship a different God), and our worship is linked to bearing his image. We work because we’re created to work; created in the image of the God who worked to create the world (and then rested from this work). It’s in our nature. And our approach to work is shaped by our nature. Work isn’t just a thing we do, it’s part of our purpose, and that purpose is shaped by what we worship. Here’s Walsh again.

“When a community in a capitalist society insists that labour—the work of our hands, the toil of our brow—is good, it is being subversive. Why? Because when such a community breaks with the dominant utilitarianism, which sees work as a disutility and consumer goods as utilities, it thereby breaks with the whole movement of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. This movement has propelled us into energy and capital intensive production processes which produce more and more goods at an ever increasing rate, while also decreasing the quality of the products, decreasing the role of human labour, and decreasing the resources of creation. When that is the fundamental movement of a culture, then a community which says that work is good and more and more consumer goods and services is not necessarily good, that community is being subversive. Insisting that work is an integral dimension of human life (not to be contrasted as productive activity over and against consumptive leisurely activity), that it is a form of worship, that it is meant to ennoble humankind, that it should be dedicated to serving one’s neighbour and the stewardly care of the creation—all of these are subversive ideas. But Christianity is not only subversive in a culture such as ours; it is also deeply offensive to the dominant forces in our culture. This offence is related to what the Bible calls “the offence of the cross.”

…Dare we imagine an economics of equality and care in place of the economics of affluence and poverty? Can we imagine what would happen if we began to disciple our children with a prophetic vision and imagination? Can we imagine our work life to be at one with our worship—an act of service and praise, not a necessary evil on the way to an affluent lifestyle? In a production oriented society where meaning and worth are measured by one’s productivity in the market place, therefore defining retirement as a loss of worth and meaning, can we imagine what it could be like if the elderly had an indispensable role in our communities? Can we imagine a society which has broken through its morbid preoccupation with death and truly affirms life, not just at the fetal stage, but in all of its dimensions and stages? Is a relationship of friendship, instead of exploitation, with the rest of the creation imaginable? Is it imaginable that the mass media could be an agent of awakened social, cultural, and spiritual renewal, rather than the one thing that numbs us into cultural complacency and sleep more than anything else? And is our imagination spiritually opened up enough to conceive of a business enterprise that is characterised by stewardship, environmental responsibility, and real serviceability rather than profits, pollution and superfluous consumer goods? It seems to me that, in the midst of a declining culture, these are the kinds of questions that a prophetic imagination raises for us. We are called to be a prophetic community, a prophetic people. — Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity


In the next post in this series, I’m going to suggest that this new drive isn’t just a new origin story (which is where Walsh starts), but a new end of the story; one that brings a new ‘end’ to our work (both in terms of a telos, and an ending of the story we’re living in). It’s not just who God is as we meet him in Jesus that should shape how we work and worship, but where Jesus is taking us, and what work will look like in the future (in this world, and the new creation). This story will change the way we approach work, because it changes the way we worship. It will make us disruptors of the status quo. In the final post I’ll consider what that might look like in real terms.

Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 1 — The end of the work as we know it?

In the last few weeks I took my 4th, 5th and 6th trips with Uber. This got me thinking some more about work, and about what it looks like for Christians to be disruptive in what some are describing as a ‘disruptive age’…

I think that’s one of our tasks as Christians; to disrupt the status quo in our world; to challenge human institutions set up around the insidious idols of greed and power, and the way these idols consume those at the margins of our society. This disruption of idols is part of proclaiming (and living in) a different sort of kingdom, in service of a different sort of king.

There’s been a lot of talk about Uber as a disruptor; a company that has harnessed new technology to disrupt an existing market (the taxi market). Just how disruptive Uber is; and how much it’s just a more efficient iteration of the existing industry is a bit up for grabs. But thinking about disruption in the context of my Uber trips and time at Hope St Cafe got me thinking that the Gospel should make Christians disruptive when it comes to work and how we think about the economy and our relationship to it. Here’s a neat little definition of disruption from Professor Kai Riemer from the University of Sydney.

“Disruption is actually a fundamental change in the way we view and use products and what we understand and take for granted about an industry, not just an improvement brought about by a new product or player.”

Here’s a little example of how the Gospel disrupts idolatry in the sphere of work and the economy in the town of Ephesus.

“A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.  There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:24-27

This is a disruption story.

The city riots. It riots because the Gospel challenges the economic status quo which is tied very closely to the idolatrous status quo. As humans, how we work — and view work within a culture — is always, fundamentally, a question of who, or what, we worship. The Gospel prompts more than simply an incremental improvement in the way we approach the economic status quo… it provides a whole new framework for how we think about the economy and about our humanity; we’re not just economic units (homo economicus), but worshippers (homo liturgicus) who shape the world as we are shaped by our gods.

To be a Christian is to be disrupted, and to become a disruptor... because we’re actually not pushing people out of false worship, and into truth, if we don’t change the way they think about work and bigger stuff like the economy, what it means to be human, and how we live in the world (and what our way of life costs others).

It’s not just that we no longer worship like we used to when we become Christians; this means we no longer work like we used to (or understand work like we used to).

The cross of Jesus changes our approach to life, and status, and people; and the story of the Bible, which begins with a God who creates (who works) and then rests, who creates us to create (to work), and rest, puts a particular value on work and sees it connected to who we are, who God is, and how we relate to God as image bearers who reflect who he is. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make work less valuable (though that has sometimes been a Christian misfire when we’ve devalued ‘secular work’ to make ‘sacred work’ (preaching the Gospel) the be all and end all); it makes work more valuable because it connects it to something bigger than our own little human kingdom; or to ‘human kingdoms’ (like corporate empires, or companies, or national economies), it connects it to the kingdom of God.

The age of disruption means what our society thinks of work, and how we approach work, is up for grabs. It is being redefined and that presents an opportunity for us, as Christians, to re-think the way we approach work amongst our neighbours. We haven’t been great at being different to our neighbours when it comes to work, lots of Aussies tacitly embrace what has been called ‘the protestant work ethic’ built on hard work, discipline and frugality, but more protestants embrace what I’d call the ‘western work ethic’ where we work to fuel our consumption, and to bring some sense of meaning and purpose to our lives. We work like Demetrius in Ephesus worked, and just like our neighbours work… when we could be working quite differently.

We should be theologically geared, or tooled, to think differently about work, because we think differently about our humanity and about God; and that difference should mean we’re able to challenge visions of work that express a different view of humanity and God.

The end of work?


In the last year I’ve heard a couple of Aussie Christian thinkers talking about the future of work for Christians, and for Aussies in general — one suggested that the future for Christians in industries like law and medicine will become fraught because of changing social views on sexuality, gender, and other things that’ll push Christians to the economic/employment margins, another was talking about entering the fray on weekend penalty rates because of the importance of protecting our ability to rest; a lesson in part taught by the Biblical concept of the Sabbath. His prediction is that work is going to creep into more and more time in the average week.

I didn’t get the impression that either of these thinkers (and they’re both pretty smart) were grappling with how technology might disrupt the status quo and change the nature of work; they both seemed to be talking about the future of work as we know it undisrupted work, the future of work as defined by companies whose interest is in sustaining current companies and incrementally improving current practices. I’d suggest both of them are inclined to be conservative in their outlook (politically, and socially) so more likely to be concerned about our ability, as Christians, to participate in traditional social institutions, and more likely to think in terms of incumbent economic institutions and concerns than disruptive ones. This video from the Harvard Business Review explains a bit of the dynamic between ‘incumbents’ and ‘disruptors’

The Uber-men

I like to talk to my Uber drivers. Last week I met Thiago, he’s a Brazilian university student; he’s got a background in Industrial Design, but he’s over here studying marketing. He’s also a Christian, and we talked about church, and Jesus. His Uber driving allows him the flexibility to study, to be involved in church, and to be in a financial position, in his sharehouse, to be generous and hospitable to people. We talked about some products he had ideas for; that he wants to develop and launch, and spoke a bit about Kickstarter, and the potential for designers to raise capital for projects via crowd funding.

Then, I met Roman, he’s from Afghanistan, via New Zealand, and he’s a dad with three kids; like me. Driving for Uber gives him the flexibility to be home at dinner time, to be there for his kids; like me he’s concerned about the way our culture’s environment and approach to work and life will shape our kids. He works hard so that their mum can stay home for these vital years, but he’s glad he doesn’t have to miss time that they’re awake. The flexibility of this type of work is important to him.

Work as we know it is changing; and there’s a couple of competing views of the trajectory we’re on; both to do with technology. New technologies have always changed the way we work; that’s the heart of what technology is; in one sense technology is about the tools we use to shape our world. In one view, technology will ultimately replace work altogether, we’re heading towards a ‘post-work future’ where everything is automated. Here’s a quote from a long-form piece in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, A World Without Work.

“When they peer deeply into labor-market data, they see troubling signs, masked for now by a cyclical recovery. And when they look up from their spreadsheets, they see automation high and low—robots in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter. They imagine self-driving cars snaking through the streets and Amazon drones dotting the sky, replacing millions of drivers, warehouse stockers, and retail workers. They observe that the capabilities of machines—already formidable—continue to expand exponentially, while our own remain the same. And they wonder: Is any job truly safe?”

In an alternative, still technology driven view, technologies will continue to ‘disrupt’ traditional patterns of work in much the same way that Uber is disrupting the transport industry (and providing new opportunities for work for lots of people); this new opt-in, flexible, type of work has been described as the ‘gig-economy’… here’s a quote from McCrindle research anticipating that this will shape the workforce of the future in Australia:

Firstly, they will live longer than previous generations, work a lot later as well – into their late 60’s, they will move jobs more frequently, staying about 3 years per job, which means they will have 17 separate jobs in their life time and work in an estimated 5 careers. They will be a generation of lifelong learners having to plug back into education to upskill and retrain throughout their lives. In this era of online services like Uber, Airtasker and delivery services, we have seen the rise of the “gig-economy” and more of this generation will end up being freelancers, contractors or contingent workers than ever before. Recent research shows that a third of the national workforce currently participates in contingent work, and more than 3 in 4 employers believe that it will be the norm for people to pick up extra work through job related websites or apps.

These are two very different visions of work, underpinned by technology — the ‘post-work’ future where almost nobody works but we enjoy machine driven prosperity (and work is largely in the creative/design space of technological innovation, or in the arts, including the ‘technological arts’), and the ‘gig-economy’ where we harness technology to be able to work on our own terms according to our own schedules and desires (which does have the potential to lead to very terrible ‘work-life’ balance, even more than the death of penalty rates on weekends). Both these visions remove some power and prestige from ‘status quo’ careers that occupy the centre of our society.

If the guy I heard speak about the future of work for Christians in Australia is right; if we’re facing a sort of pressure that will squeeze us out of roles at the centre of the social order (and of a particular sort of influence) and out to the margins, then the gig-economy offers a sort of refuge for us. He was relatively pessimistic about the impact of these changes; suggesting that for the first time, Christian parents in our country face the possibility that our children will not be as comfortable as we are; that they’ll be worse off. Which for many parents will be a sort of rude shock, and a thing that every part of our natural inclinations will rage against. It’s a very possible vision of the future. And this guy wasn’t offering analysis beyond the descriptive/predictive about whether or not this is actually a good thing for Christians… I think he’d also acknowledge that there are many ways that ‘less comfortable’ is both a good and necessary thing, and that there might be some good outcomes for Christians operating as a subversive community at the margins. I want to be hopefully optimistic, not just because such a position will remove us Christians from some of the gravitational pull of some big idols in our culture — power and wealth — and allow us to speak more clearly about, and less affected by, those idols, but also because real disruption comes from the margins. What marginalisation represents is an opportunity to properly innovate apart from the status quo; and the status quo is actually toxic; we’re no better than Ephesus in Paul’s day; and the Gospel should threaten the profits of those who profit from peddling destructive idols now, just as it did then. It can’t if we’re complicit in the systems that sustain those idols… and let’s not kid ourselves; the way we approach work is fundamentally defined by the gods (or God) we worship, here’s a little more from that Atlantic article, bolded for emphasis.

“Futurists and science-fiction writers have at times looked forward to machines’ workplace takeover with a kind of giddy excitement, imagining the banishment of drudgery and its replacement by expansive leisure and almost limitless personal freedom. And make no mistake: if the capabilities of computers continue to multiply while the price of computing continues to decline, that will mean a great many of life’s necessities and luxuries will become ever cheaper, and it will mean great wealth—at least when aggregated up to the level of the national economy.

But even leaving aside questions of how to distribute that wealth, the widespread disappearance of work would usher in a social transformation unlike any we’ve seen. If John Russo is right, then saving work is more important than saving any particular job. Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?

What if work as we know it ends? Is a life without work even a thing that is remotely possible or desirable given who we are as humans?

My own sense of where we’re headed as a society is somewhere closer to the McCrindle prediction than the Atlantic’s post-work future. Christians may well be excluded from ‘traditional institutions’ in this future because of our convictions, but these institutions might themselves have been disrupted (or marginalised). I’m also optimistic that our Christian convictions, and a more imaginative, non-status quo, vision of humanity, work and the world might lead us to be innovators and ‘creatives’ who benefit from these changes (though perhaps those benefits won’t be felt in economic terms). There is an opportunity, if the McCrindle conclusions are right (and even if the future looks more like ‘post-work’) for Christians to be disruptive in ways that reflect our rejection of our world’s status quo when it comes to the place of work in a materialistic, idolatrous (greedy) culture built on consumption and perpetual productivity growth. Part of us being truly disruptive will rely on us, as Christians, training a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who look for opportunities to disrupt; particularly opportunities born out of our convictions about what is wrong with the status quo; particularly our society’s understanding of what work is, and what work is for.

But this might require us re-tooling the way we understand work in our world, and our place in it; it’ll definitely mean we need to be disrupted first, so that we’re able to spot the ways in which the idolatry of our age has crept into how we approach work, including the work we do, and why we do it. In this series I’ll unpack some more on the nature of work and what drives us to work, what the ends of work are (as opposed to the end of work), and think about how we might approach the future of work as Christians with a hopeful optimism and a desire to disrupt.