The Value of Work
During the past few days I've been listening in on the discussion of the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly. Perhaps one of the clearest threads running through the reports and the delegates' discussion has been the challenge of countries facing multiple crises: climate change, the financial crises, the food crises, and scattered natural disasters risk cancelling out the steps made towards global poverty reduction over the last decades, and dampen future prospects. One of the areas of direct impact has been the rising unemployment levels around the world.
It is hard to overstate the importance of employment. At the aggregate level, full or near-full employment is one of the primary aspects of healthy economic development. For individuals, having decent work (in terms of safety and dignity) with adequate remuneration and job security often means the difference between living in poverty and having sufficient income to provide for oneself and one's family. Work is the best means for an income.
Yet it strikes me that focusing on the economic value of work, though crucial, does not capture the full value of work, which extends even beyond making ends meet. Having myself recently finished university and begun looking for permanent employment, I am beginning to understand how important work can be for maintaining motivation, feeling like an integrated part of society, and for contributing what I have to give. Unemployment, on the other hand, can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and social exclusion.
A BIC statement on work highlights that, "work, no matter how humble and simple, when performed with an attitude of service, is a means to contribute to the advancement of our communities, countries, and global society.”
The value of work thus lies in its role in furthering the prosperity and capabilities of ourselves and others. Indeed, according to the Baha'i Writings, work carried out in a spirit of service to others is elevated to the rank of worship. Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, wrote, "It is incumbent upon each one of you to engage in some occupation—such as a craft, a trade or the like. We have exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship of the one true God." It is thus at the intersection of economic, social, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
Creating the economic and political conditions that promote full employment and decent work for all is therefore a global challenge of the highest priority. But the extremely unequal distribution of wealth and productive assets (including education, land, infrastructure) in the world today contributes to making productive work unavailable to large groups of people in many countries. Social safety-nets and welfare should of course be created mitigate the effects of an economic downturn, and provide for those with limited ability to work. However, such safety-nets are fiscally hard to maintain in poor and/or stagnant economies.
There is therefore a moral imperative for those in a position to create employment to act. Again, drawing on the Baha'i writings "if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, ... for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude." Those with inordinate riches should expend them "for the promotion of knowledge, the founding of elementary and other schools, the encouragement of art and industry, the training of orphans and the poor—in brief, if it is dedicated to the welfare of society.
As I see it, the value of work therefore encompasses the need for every individual to earn a living for themselves and their family, but also goes beyond this. Through our crafts and professions we can also gain socially and spiritually, and serve the overall well-being of the community.