We are often asked, “What do you do?” Our response is often something like, “I work at the ABC Widget Company.” This response says volumes about how we see work in our modern milieu. This is an eleventh shift in thinking we must understand.
The pre-modern era began with “we” rather than “me.” People were understood as essentially communal, and our most natural “habitat” was in community. The assumption was that we flourish only when we are in deep and sustained relationships with others.
Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato observed this to be the case. It is also consistent with our understanding of God. We know that he eternally exists as three persons–Father, Son, and Spirit. So God is essentially communal. It follows that if we are created in his image, we, too, are essentially communal. We need one another to flourish. Deep relationships help us fully live out who we are.
Therefore, whether from the pens of philosophers or biblical revelation, pre-modern men and women understood that we needed one another. This was reflected in their view of work.
For the pre-moderns, work was communal. Each individual had unique gifts, skills, and abilities. No one person had everything needed to accomplish the task. So they worked together. Family members contributed their particular abilities. Communities worked together on large tasks (as is still seen in Amish communities when a barn needs to be built–the whole community comes together to get it done).
Those in the trades worked together, forming guilds. Younger craftsmen were apprentices of the more experienced, learning from them in the context of the community. Work was not just about working at such-and-such a company. It was about being a member of a guild (such as blacksmiths) that allowed one to become excellent in one’s calling. This resulted in people creating beautiful artifacts in wood or stone. The same was true in fulfilling one’s calling as a teacher, stone mason, accountant, or farmer.
Though always with us, the understanding of work shifted to an emphasis on the individual as a cog in the machine after the Enlightenment. This was due to a number of philosophical shifts that occurred during that period of intellectual history, as I’ve already discussed. So I’ll just mention a few of them, and draw out several implications.
Enter the Industrial Revolution. Without the belief that people were created in God’s image and given unique gifts and callings, it made sense to see people as interchangeable “cogs” in a machine. Add to this the pragmatism of the day, implying that whatever was most “expedient” was assumed to be best.
Based on these philosophical shifts, it followed that whole scale industrialization was good for society. It made sense to build factories and put people on assembly lines, where each person does one thing repetitively, day in and day out. This is the most expedient use of time and energy, producing the most widgets at the end of the day.
Of course, people are isolated, doing their one job all day long without much interaction. But this was okay, because people don’t need to be in community with one another anyway. Community was seen as an “old-fashioned” idea.
And there was no concern that people might be treated like interchangeable parts in the big machine (the factory). According to the modern view, people don’t have unique gifts and abilities, endowed by their Creator, that make them especially suited to some roles and responsibilities rather than others. No, that would assume the “old-fashioned” ideas of us being unique creations in God’s image and given diverse gifts and callings by Him.
Finally, it was presumed, people would actually be happier, because they would no longer feel the burden of developing as an expert craftsman, or of learning everything needed to farm well. Pragmatism said the assembly line is where you can actually flourish, because all you have to do is clock in, assemble your part of the widgets coming down the line all day, and then clock out. Your pay is guaranteed, with none of the stress and uncertainty that comes from having to be excellent in a craft or trade.
Soon this idea expanded from the factory to the office. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) took these ideas of “assembly line” production and developed efficiency protocols for management. With the assumption that all employees are interchangeable “cogs” in the business, the “principles of scientific management” (as he titled his book on the subject) prescribed in excruciating detail how each employee should perform his or her tasks to obtain maximum efficiency.
The result was hyper-micro-management of employees, never-ending policy manuals stipulating every detail of a workers’ role, and all-encompassing review and evaluation procedures to chart, down to the smallest detail, each worker’s efficiency, per the predetermined metrics of productivity. The pervasiveness of this shift can be charted in the transition from businesses having Personnel Departments to Human Resource Departments. As is often the case, our language betrays our philosophy. “Personnel” signals a focus on the person in the company; “Human Resources” (or simply “HR”) focuses on the person as merely a cog–a resource–necessary to drive the company forward.
The dehumanization resulting from Enlightenment ideas is now nearly complete. And it is safe to say that this shift in our understanding of work has not provided the results hoped for. Conditions in the factory deteriorated, as these modern ideas were more consistently applied. Even now, as we pass laws aiming to ensure a safe and more hospitable environment, many do not flourish in the workplace.
One indication of this is the rapid growth of “cottage” industries. As opportunities have increased for men and women to venture out on their own and work independently, more and more are doing so. They find that this allows them to express their unique gifts and abilities, and that as a result they flourish in their vocations. Being a cog in a machine strips work of its intrinsic value, and it only becomes a means to an end (having an income). We become a society that is “living for the weekend.” On the other hand, those who find their work humanizing love what they do, and for them work has intrinsic value. In a very real sense, they never “work” a day in their lives.
The dehumanizing effect of this shift is richly captured in a passage from Jaber Crow, a novel by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors. As I recall the passage (I’ve lent my copy to my daughter , so I’m going by memory here), Jaber, the main character, understands this well. He hears his son-in-law Athey, who farms the land next to his, out in the field after sunset. He discovers that Athey has mounted headlights on the tractor, so that he can work past sundown. Although this innovation is more efficient, Jaber reflects on how dehumanizing it is, disregarding the natural rhythms of light and dark, and how we are created to live in those rhythms. But the modern mind knows nothing about being created in a certain way, flourishing in certain conditions, or valuing things other than efficiency and pragmatic ends (such as Athey valuing only a greater crop yield, at the expense of his and his family’s well-being).
Nor has this shift in how we understand work fared any better in the corporate world. Building on his book The Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Taylor became one of the first management consultants. Companies rushed to apply his “Command and Control” principles, and his book became the most influential book on management in the twentieth century (as voted by the Fellows of the Academy of Management).
However, though his ideas have been widely and precisely implemented, the result has not been healthier and more productive businesses, leet alone increased human flourishing. Scott Adams has become rich and famous by poking fun at this approach in his popular comic strip Dilbert. Micro-management, treating people like cogs in a machine, and making decisions based only on pragmatic grounds do not make for a great company.
Many who study businesses are agreeing. One leading management expert whom I find very helpful is Jim Collins. In his bestselling book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, he studies companies that have become great and compares them to companies in the same industries that have not. From these comparisons, he identities seven principles true of all (and only) the great companies. Interestingly, most of them are the direct opposite of the “scientific” management principles proposed by Frederick Taylor and seen so often in twentieth-century management styles.
Another current management consultant emphasizing these same themes, whom I also really like, is Patrick Lencioni. Interestingly, my understanding is that they are both followers of Christ. If so, this makes sense, for the principles they endorse are biblical principles, such as “servant leadership.” In the next blog I’ll say more about how our view of work is deeply tied to our theology.
Once again, upon reflection it seems that again “new” isn’t “improved.” We have lost much in our understanding of work due to this evolution in our thinking. We would do well to become “dinosaurs” and return to pre-modern ideas that are essential to human flourishing.
If we work in the trades, this return to classical understandings will help us regain a sense of dignity in our craft, leading to a rediscovery of its wonders and a love for our work. If we are managers in the business world, this will help us lead and manage better, enabling both our employees and our company to be healthy, more productive, and profitable. If we are in education, agriculture, or other fields, the results will be the same.
This shift in thinking had major implications for the church as well. I’ll discuss some of these implications next week.
Until then, grace and peace.