Wednesday, May 19, 2021
It's Wednesday, May 19, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What’s Gone Missing in the United States? The American Work Ethic — And the Consequences Will Be Huge
In the United States, something has gone missing and it's going to have huge consequences. What appears to be missing is the work ethic, often described as the American work ethic. And that is because the United States of America has had at the center of its cultural ideal the fact that we are meant to work, that work is important, and that indeed a part of the nation's work is to see that the nation is at work. But of course that's true, not just for the United States, but it has been particularly true in the United States because we have been both by reputation and by aspiration an activist people, and that is meant an activist workplace. Even as around the world, there are nations with say younger retirement ages in the United States, there has been an ethos of work. And that has helped to explain why in the United States there have been such great gains in economic productivity over the course of the last century and more.
But the American work ethic is disappearing right before our eyes and we are right now at one of those hinge moments in history where we can see not only the fact that this work ethic is now in decline and it's disappearing, we can see the consequences looming before us. Daniel Henninger writing for The Wall Street Journal asked the question, "Is the American work ethic dying?" He goes on to trace the development of this problem in the United States. And he makes very clear that current domestic policy undertaken by the Biden administration is both revealing and driving, even encouraging this disappearance of the American work ethic. He writes this, "This week, surveying the gulf between the millions of jobs available in the United States and the startlingly smaller number of people taking them, President Biden said, “People will come back to work if they're paid a decent wage.” But Henninger then asked, but what if he's wrong?"
"What if his $300 unemployment insurance bonus on top of the checks sent directly to millions of people, which began during the Trump presidency, turns out to be a big, long-term mistake?" Well, we are looking at a big change in the culture. Henninger writes, "It's now clear that Mr. Biden and the left expect these outlays effectively to raise the minimum wage by forcing employers to compete with Uncle Sam's money. Still, it is impossible, he says, not to be struck by how many employers say that former and prospective employees after a year of forced unemployment simply will not work." There's plenty of evidence from around the country and just in the raw data, you are looking at the fact that there has been a significant decline from the American workforce. According to the statistics revealed by The Wall Street Journal, there are currently 8 million fewer Americans working than before the advent of COVID-19.
Now, COVID-19 explains at least something in the short or midterm about that effect upon the employment picture. But now, we're looking at the fact that a very robust economic recovery is leading to the need for millions of jobs coast to coast. And employers are not saying that people are flocking to take these jobs because they're tired of not working. No employers are telling us that the evidence is that millions upon millions of Americans have decided they like not working. Again, 8 million jobs short. And that assumes the status quo before the pandemic, not that there should be economic growth looking at the future. Now, economists are very worried about this and they need to be worried because a declining workforce means a declining economy eventually. We've talked about the fact that China is worried that as a society it will grow old before it grows rich. And declining birth rate, and thus impact upon the population, the declining number of workers. That's the bottom line of the concern of the Chinese communist party.
"Workers of the world, unite!" Remember is what Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto, but what if there aren't that many workers. But of course, as you're looking at Marx, I mentioned Karl Marx, of course, the Father of Communism. Remember that it was Marx who said that the primal problem was that human beings were alienated from their labor by modern industry and by the creation of the wage or salary system. And instead, Karl Marx pointed to a future where no one had to work and which people would actually do whatever they wanted to do. He counted on the fact that at least some of those people would perform the work necessary for society. It was a failed utopian vision then. Now, well over a century ago, how can anyone believe that's a workable program going to the future?
But I think Henninger is particularly prophetic in one paragraph. "The authorities built COVID into a 12-month monster, so people naturally sought respite in distractions from the monster. I believe the pandemic, he says, accelerated a transition evident for years away from the basic concept of daily work and toward an emerging idea that life is less about work and more about play. Life as a nonstop game." So, let's just look to the period before COVID. So, COVID was an interruption. Let's get back before the interruption. The fact is that there was already a year’s long, indeed two decade’s long period of the exit of many young men from the workplace. Now as you're looking at the economy, the impact was buffeted a bit by two things. Number one, the entry of so many women into the workplace. And so the loss of many men, particularly young men did not have the effect it would otherwise have had.
The other thing was automation. So much automation entered into the economy that many people didn't notice that many young men were becoming disengaged from work. This is not just an economic issue. It is a vast and will be very consequential economic issue. It's very bad economic news for the United States, for any nation that would report this kind of statistic. It is very bad news for the future of the American economy. But as Christians, as we think about work, we understand that Marx got it almost exactly wrong. The problem is not the human beings are alienated from our labor by a wage or salary system or the rise of an industrial economy. If there is an alienation of human beings from labor, it is the result of sin. And one of those forms of sin is sloth. There's also an entire constellation of sin that could be involved here. And in a fallen world, sin works out all of its consequences. But the alienation of young men, for example, from work is a massive problem, not just for society, but for those young men.
And now, we're looking at year after year of these building statistics. We're also looking at the contemporary urgency. Right now, it appears that the United States federal government is actually taking actions that will institutionalize this alienation from the workplace that will actually incentivize more people not working rather than working. Now as The Wall Street Journal columnist makes very clear, this has been an aim of the political left in the United States for a long time. Does that mean that the left is inherently Marxist? No, but it does mean that there are certain Marxist intuitions at least built into the worldview of the left. And that is the fact that when you are looking at the contemporary workplace, you're looking at something that's more a context of oppression and liberation. But we as Christians have to look at it in exactly the opposite sense. We do not want to liberate human beings from work.
As a matter of fact, we see human beings as revealed in Scripture as made for work. So even as we're looking at this, when we recognize that policy by policy, there's an incentive right now to stay unemployed. There is a disincentive from entering into the workplace. And even as the left does see this as some opportunity to gain political advantage and to push what would be a rather massive extension of a welfare state, we need to understand that doesn't work anywhere. For one thing, a welfare state is so inherently expensive that it requires more workers by far than those who are drawing benefits. If that calculus begins to be reversed or even if that graph is simply weakened, then the entire system begins to fall into debt, and then it eventually goes bankrupt.
What Does Scripture Have to Say about Work? Quite a Lot, Actually
But now, as we're looking at this as Christians, the issues are actually deeper. Let's think about what the Scripture teaches about work. First of all, as we say on The Briefing over and over again, the first thing we find out about human beings is that God made us in his image. Now, what does that mean? What does it mean that God made us in his image? Well, consider the assignment that was given to human beings, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Remember he made us male and female. He made us for not only the task of multiplying and having more image bearers in the world by reproduction. It also ties to the essential gift of marriage. All that's to take place within the context of marriage. But we are also told that the entire context of planet earth is one great glorious workplace. God made the entire cosmos in order to play out the drama of redemption on planet earth.
And God's glorious scene that on planet earth, he made it as one giant workplace. He made us in his image, but that command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth is continued by the command to exercise dominion over it. And that's why we build factories. That's why we take a piece of wood, and as the Bible gives us a numerous parables and illustrations, we carve it into something useful. That is why we till the ground and the labor of that work produces a crop. That is why we are involved in all kinds of building, and working, and striving, and laboring. And that's why the Bible honors it. And the Bible dishonors those who disengage from that work. Now, we have this explicitly in the opening chapters of scripture. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 make this abundantly clear. Genesis 3 also in its own way makes this very clear.
The biblical theology follows those four great movements, creation, fall, redemption, consummation. Creation explains why there is something rather than nothing, and why the order of creation is as God designed for his glory and for our good. It is the fall that reminds us what's broken in the world. Its human sinfulness. It's our identity as law breakers against God. It is because every single one of us sins and fall short of his glory. And this has consequences everywhere. It has consequences that are medical. For one thing, mortality. It also has consequences that are economic. In Genesis 3, we see this very clearly. Because in the judgment of God against the sin of Adam, in Genesis 3, Adam has told that his work will be more arduous. The crop is going to come by the sweat of his brow. It is going to be harder work for human beings in a sinful world. But in a fallen world, the work becomes even more important.
What are some other biblical movements we should have in mind? Well, let's go to the 10 Commandments. Let's go to Exodus 20, the Sabbath command, what Protestants called the Fourth Commandment. That Sabbath command says that the seventh day we are to keep holy as a Sabbath under the Lord. And the Lord speaking to Moses says that he is to tell the people six days you shall do your work. Six days, you shall labor. But the seventh day you shall keep as a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall rest. And then amazingly enough, the model for that, God tells Moses is his own work in creation because God labored so to speak. In creation, six days of creative work and on the seventh day, he rested. So it turns out that in a biblical theology, God is a working God in the sense that he's active and he is productive infinitely so to his own glory.
And human beings are to actually follow his example in work. Also, notice something else. The Sabbath command only makes sense if the normal mode of human activity is work rather than rest. It doesn't say, six days you shall rest. And then, you shall have that unusual day in which you work. No, it says, six days, you shall do your labor. And that one day, the seventh day is to be the day of rest. Fast-forward to 1 Timothy 5:18 and we are told that the workman is worthy of his hire. Again, very important. That's just a normative picture. The workman is worthy of his hire. Is that an economic policy? Well, yes, you bet it is. But more than that, it is a human dignity policy. There is human dignity in work. But the Bible also makes very clear in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
Just look at the book of Proverbs or look at the examples given to us throughout the Old Testament and the New. But in case you missed the example, you can't miss the clear teaching of scripture in 2 Thessalonians 3, where the apostle Paul writes, "If someone is unwilling to work, let them not eat." Now, that's a straightforward statement. If someone is unwilling to work, let them not eat. Now, clearly the most important word there is unwilling. It doesn't say someone unable to work. We need to take care of someone who's unable to work. It doesn't speak of those who aren't old enough to work in terms of a workplace. It doesn't speak of those who are beyond the age in which it's practical to work in a workplace. It speaks of those who are unwilling to work. It identifies as sin an unwillingness to work.
And the Bible makes clear that sin can take the form of sloth as laziness, or even as apathy, simply a lack of commitment to live out what God has intended us to do and assigned us in creation. Now, there's another question that comes up and this one's going to get us in a bit of trouble. What about the distinction between men and women? Two huge problems here. Number one, as you are looking at the roles of men and women in the church and in the home, the Bible is very clear about the distinctions. In the workplace, less so. But there are still principles. Let me tell you what the biggest problem is. The biggest problem is that we misunderstand the work that men are called to do. The bigger problem is that we do not give equal and rightful dignity to the work that women are called to do in the household, and in particular, as mothers.
Now, I realize even making that gender assignment will be controversial with some people, but again, simply look at two things. Number one, the evidence of Scripture. They're just reinforced in history. And number two, the command and dictates of biology. I'll simply make it that plain. There is a problem in simply defining labor is something that takes place outside the home. That's not only unjust, it's also just profoundly untrue. But there's a second problem. And that second problem is that young women tend to find their way into maturity and into work more naturally than young men. Now, why would that be the case? Well, for one thing, again, biology does have something undeniable to do with it. And that comes down to motherhood. When a mother has a baby, that baby is making incessant instant unceasing demands. The baby is also going to make certain that no one sleeps until certain needs are met. Needs that in most cases, the mother was naturally designed to fulfill. Societies have always had to work at inculcating a work ethic, not only in the larger civilization, but particularly among boys and young men.
And that's where we see a huge problem. That's where Daniel Henninger writing about the problem I think points to the fact that the juxtaposition here is not in our society. Understood as between say, work and sloth. It is between work and play. Now, the Bible doesn't have nothing to say about play. It just makes very clear that play has to find itself within the natural pattern of what's even more important. And that's the problem with so many boys and young men. Their lives are all about play. Everything that is reinforced often for many parents is actually about play. Play becomes the obsession. And many people have noted that the absence or alienation of so many young men from the workforce comes with, in so many cases, the development of technology in forms of entertainment, such as video games. These days, by the way, there's full evidence that many people are spending more time in social media.
They are tweeting rather than working. Some are tweeting so much it's virtually impossible that they're working in any meaningful or maximal sense at all. Higher education also deserve some blame as Henninger writes, "As if caught in a time warp, real employers with real companies are looking for workers to do real jobs. Keep in mind, though, that many graduates attend universities that decided years ago that to compete they had to transform their campuses into playpens." As a matter of fact, I want to take this call on this metaphor and expand it. There are many people who are simply treating the entire cosmos as basically one giant and endlessly variant playpen. One of the primary responsibilities of any civilization is to train its young people to prepare them for meaningful entry into the workplace. But when I say workplace, I don't just mean a factory or an office or a sales floor, I also mean the home.
But in general, to understand that to the glory of God, we are called to work. We are called to strive or called to labor. Yes, sometimes we're called to perspire by the sweat of our brow to get the job done. And something is wrong with a society that does not prepare its younger citizens for that kind of toil an investment. But the biblical worldview tells us that the problem is worse than that. It tells us that it's not just going to be a problem for the economy. It's going to be a problem for those very individuals because their lives can never be healthy if work is an alien issue from their lives. If they are not working, if they're not meaningfully contributing to society, if they are not learning the connection between work and wages, then something is missing not only from the society, but from their moral formation as well.
But Christians understand one final issue, the ultimate issue, and that is that the ultimate robbery in all of this is not economic robbery. It's not even say maturity robbery. It is the robbery of the glory of God. God is robbed of his glory, which is his due as creator if we do not live according to the plan that he revealed in creation. And again, I go back to that Sabbath command in which we are told that God not only showed us the pattern and stipulated it in scripture, he also demonstrated it in his very work or act of creation. Remember one final thought on this. And that is the fact that when we talk about the Bible's revelation concerning Jesus Christ, we refer to two dimensions, the person of Christ and the work of Christ. And Christ himself spoke of his own mission as a work that he had been called to do.
One of the theme verses of my life is from the Gospel of John 9:4 where Jesus says to the disciples, "We must work the work of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no man can work." And yes, night is coming, judgment is coming. And until then, what are we to be found doing? Working, but not just working, working to the glory of God.
An Iconic London Store Shuts Its Doors, and Behind the Headline Is the Story of a Hard-Working 15-Year-Old Boy
But finally as we're thinking about the end of work. Work is coming to an end for one venerable London story. You don't want to miss this story. The store is named Arthur Beale and it has been around selling goods for sailors and explorers for 500 years. According to yesterday's edition of The Wall Street Journal, the store's roots go back to about the year 1,500 "when a rope maker called John Buckingham set up a spot close to where the store stands today. Arthur Beale himself joined as a 15-year-old in 1890 and by the start of the last century owned the business, which expanded into supplying other maritime equipment."
Well, you talk about getting boys to grow up and take a job. How about a 15-year-old that ended up owning one of the world's oldest businesses, renaming it for himself when he became the owner. How important was this one shop? Well, listen to The Wall Street Journal: "Over the centuries it has outfitted a who's who of famous explorers, sailors and mountaineers, including British Antarctic hero Ernest Shackleton and members of the first Everest expeditions." Were also told that "the business has leased its current building in London's theater district for "only 150 years," said one of the owners." In embarrassment, the owner who made the statement then withdrew the word only, as in "only" 150 years.
The current owners of the business told The Wall Street Journal that they plan to take the business online in hopes that one day they can bring it back to a shop in London. London is a giant city of shops and it has been that way for centuries. It's going to be missing one shop, that is Arthur Beale that will be much missed. You have to think that it must have fit in the mind of a 15-year-old boy in London that where he wanted to work was in a shop that outfitted expeditions and made provisions for explorers. It's a sad day when a tradition like this comes to an end, at least in terms of a storefront in London. But I joined the owners and hoping that one day there will be an Arthur Beale again on the streets of London and an army of 15-year-old boys looking for jobs as well.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing. In the meantime, get to work.