I am perhaps the last person qualified to write about jobs. I have one – of a kind. I have also spent a small fraction of my life on Jobseeker’s Allowance. But to have been ordained to an, inescapably ‘vocational’, ‘job for life’, with no career structure to speak of but large amounts of job satisfaction – well, I guess that puts me in a tiny and rather curious minority of the ‘labour market’. Nevertheless (and partly because it’s what I’m paid for), I want to attempt some reflections on ‘work’ from this rather odd position…
Here on the Firs & Bromford, the Daily Mail very kindly labelled us, a while ago, the 7th most ‘workshy’ neighbourhood in the country, with a very neat bit of short-circuited logic that somehow ‘not being in work’ means ‘not wanting to work’. One of the facts they neglected to mention is that, round here, a hell of a lot of jobs have vanished in the last 10 or 20 years. Lots of people worked in factories, and the factories have gone.
So what we need is jobs. We need to create jobs. We need to have create local businesses and industries, or attract businesses and industries, that will offer local jobs. That much seems obvious.
But let’s just allow ourselves to be stopped in our tracks, for a moment or two, by the words of one of your local young people: “I don’t want a job. I want a career.” More than just something which pays some bills (and often even paying the bills is a struggle). But what’s the ‘more’? This is where I want to traverse some unfamiliar territory…
Let’s start with the basics. Making ends meet. To be housed, to be fed, to be clothed, to be warm (and the same for those ‘dependent’ on me). And here’s where ‘local economics’ must surely challenge some of our normal assumptions. Do we need money for food? What if there are some people in our community who are good at growing fruit and veg? What if there are things we can do for them in exchange? Would money need to be part of the equation? What if we as a community had invested in ways of generating local energy? What is it about the bricks and mortar of a home that demands thousands of pounds a year, for life (and yes, I write as someone who lives in a house provided free by the community of which I am a part)? Are there other ways of meeting our basic needs, that ‘keep it local’? The network of ‘Transition Towns’ suggests there might be – in ways that are sustainable for us human beings, and the earth’s resources.
What else do jobs normally do for us, though? How about the network of relationships we have through work – at best (although it seems to be getting rarer and rarer), a relatively stable community of friendships that provides mutual support. And there’s the relationship that ‘working’ gives us with the wider community (and wider society), of having ‘value’, perhaps bound out with a sense of reciprocity – that I, by working, am making a valuable ‘contribution’, and I am being given back something (normally in the form of money) for doing so. But again, let’s just unpick this a little. Does money have to be the key currency of exchange in these relationships? Do we absolutely need to be ‘employed’, in the conventional sense, to be part of a stable, mutually supportive, community of friendships, where I have a sense of making a valuable contribution, and am given a sense of being valued in return? As a vicar, it strikes me that church might surely be one example of a place where all of this should happen – and not a penny changes hands (well, not as a necessary part of the community’s ‘currency’, at least).
But there’s yet more to ‘work’. That ‘career’ that our local young person talked about, surely has a lot to do with a sense of ‘journey’, of ‘going somewhere’ – a sense of purpose, and of meaning, to my existence and my labouring; of learning and growing and developing. Of course I’m a fine one to talk about vocations. But why shouldn’t everyone have their own sense of vocation? Why should some people have to be content with a sense of ‘going nowhere’, doing meaningless, repetitive chores day after day? Even if, as you’ll no doubt argue, the world needs lots of people doing persistently repetitive tasks, who says that is the only task they are allowed to perform? Who says they have nothing to contribute to design and development, to sales and marketing, to care for fellow employees, to making their environment, and the world, more beautiful, more happy, as well as more well-equipped with whatever…? And again, why should ‘vocations’ be limited to only those things someone expects to pay us for? Why do we value the vocation of child-rearing, for example, so much less that we refuse to pay for it? Why can’t every community have its poet, its artist, its head gardener, its jester, its singer – and for these to be their occupations, and for their livelihoods to be met by the community, in whatever way the community is able to do so, in exchange for them occupying that role?
I was away overnight last week with friends and fellow-clergy from Birmingham’s ‘Strengthening Estates Ministry’ group. Among many earthed, passionate and stimulating conversations, we spent some time playing with the metaphor of ‘improvisation’ – something I’ve written about here before (just after the August 2011 riots, in fact):
“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”
I’m going to try, in 2012, to stop using the word ‘empowering’ – or at least to cut back considerably – with its suggestion that somehow it’s all about ‘us’ giving power to ‘them’. I much prefer the idea of ‘overaccepting’ – starting with the assumption that those around us have always, already, got something to offer; and just working out how we can be daring and creative enough to receive it, draw it out, be part of a relationship that enables such offers to become more than any of us can ever intend or imagine. I reckon it’s what church does with people, when it’s at its best. Maybe it’s something we might even be able to offer to the wider communities of which we are a part (or indeed discover as already present within them!). Maybe it’s what we’re all crying out for. It’s got to be more than just a job…