Friday 2 May 2014

Good Work

One of the peculiarities of British Quakers is that most of us are employed in a very narrow range of occupations – mainly professional roles in health, education or social care.

Quaker livelihoods have changed dramatically over the last three and a half centuries. The first Quakers were largely small farmers and artisans. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries many went into business and became increasingly affluent, creating famous Quaker dynasties of merchants, manufacturers and bankers. It is only since the 20th Century that most British Quakers have been in professional public-sector occupations. Professions such as teaching, social work and medicine have offered many Friends a way to put their commitment to social improvement into practice in their working lives. In the best cases this work has enabled them to fulfil a sense of vocation while also enjoying a comfortable standard of living and lifetime job security.

These accustomed ways of earning a living and contributing usefully to society are no longer working for many Friends today, as a result of broad changes in British work culture. Over recent years, professional work of all kinds has been steadily degraded by the pressures of increasing bureaucracy, repeated re-structuring and constant pressure to meet ever higher performance targets with reduced resources. These pressures have undermined traditional values of professional responsibility and autonomy. Instead of being trusted to exercise their judgement in the best interests of the public, teachers, academics, doctors and social workers are subject to arbitrary targets, box-ticking, performance management, and all the other techniques from the arsenal of modern management. This trend is not limited to the public sector. A uniform bureaucratic work culture has been steadily imposed on most public, private and charitable organisations, including churches (and even, alas, the Religious Society of Friends).

The question of how to find a good, worthwhile, fulfilling occupation is becoming increasingly problematical for many people. For those of us with children, it can also be difficult to know what kind of support we should be giving to them to choose their own future careers.

The most popular advice for people seeking satisfying work is probably 'Do what you love'. While this has a clear appeal, it faces the obvious objection that not everyone can do the kind of jobs that are usually considered loveable; or as Mad Men's Marie Calvet pithily expresses it: 'Not every little girl gets to do what they want – the world could not support that many ballerinas'.

From a Quaker perspective, it might be more helpful to consider work as a part of our response to the leadings of the Spirit in our lives. Work is not always enjoyable. Many essential occupations are unglamorous, arduous or routine. But even the least glamorous job can still be satisfying, if it is undertaken not just from reluctant necessity, but in response to a sense of being 'led' to a particular kind of work. These leadings can be experienced in many ways; through our gifts and passions, unexpected desires, 'chance' events, friendships, intuitions and failures. A leading is often experienced as a 'soul need' to be in a particular place, with these people, or doing this kind of work rather than anything else.

At various times in my life I have done several kinds of work that are usually regarded as drudgery, including cleaning and caring for people with disabilities. More recently, I made a complete change of occupation in my mid-40s; giving up a professional career as an NGO manager to become an organic grower for a local city farm.

From a purely rational point of view, this was certainly not a good move. It has meant a considerable drop in status and income, as well as a great deal of punishing physical effort in all weathers. The job has also taken me completely outside of my natural area of competence (ie speaking and writing), and into the very much more challenging sphere of wrestling with physical reality in its many obdurate forms.

Despite the obvious disadvantages, this work answers a strong inward need to do physical work in the open air, to learn practical skills, and to produce something tangible; in the form of fruit and vegetables for local people. Even when the work is exhausting and uncomfortable (like today when I have spent several hours shovelling compost in the rain) it satisfies 'soul needs' that days spent in meeting rooms or facing a computer screen cannot touch.

Work like this is clearly not for everyone. Our leadings towards different occupations are unique to our own histories, personalities and inmost desires. For some people, taking their leadings seriously may require a willingness to make drastic changes and take risks. Others may be led to a long-term commitment to a particular workplace or local community.

Allowing our working lives to be shaped by our inner leadings might also mean becoming more open to a far wider range of possibilities than we are usually prepared to consider. In particular, we might be more willing to encourage young people to take seriously any inclinations towards practical work, rather than automatically expecting them to go to University, accumulate decades of debt, and end up in professional careers that may not use their deepest capacities or satisfy their authentic soul needs.

Skilled manual occupations such as agriculture, building or joinery, offer unique opportunities for good work that usually go unrecognised by middle-class Quakers. In next month's post, I will be exploring further these occupations' potential for fulfilling work, meaningful friendships and ethical reflection. In the meantime, I would be very interested to learn about your experiences of work. How does bureaucracy affect your working life? Have you experienced a sense of leading towards a particular occupation? What soul needs does your work satisfy, or fail to meet?


  1. Work connects us to the world and makes us whole persons. But not any old work. As Ruskin said:
    “Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.” (Stones of Venice 1851).
    There was a time when most manual workers were free in their guild workshops, and most professionals were free in their partnerships, but now most of us are slaves to the production line or to managerialism. It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill - that is five years in an apprenticeship, or at medical college, or as a junior partner in a profession, or in music college. Modern training schemes and by-the-numbers degrees only make 'animated tools' of us because all we have done is learn a set of rules and procedures drilled into us like a computer program.
    We are slaves to the system until we stop and think and start making mistakes and learning from what goes wrong and getting more and more skilled. Ask this of any middle aged person today: "Do you have thirty years experience, or one year's experience repeated 30 times?"
    Experience teaches us to work out what the problem is, and not just apply the solution taught in the training program; to be able to discover that which works best in each situation and be emotionally engaged with the work, and not just force your way through using power tools and digital technology; to be truly objective and know the world as it actually is, and not just live in our heads which are full of unreal ideas.

    1. Thanks for these very fruitful insights Gordon. I am constantly reminded of how much of a beginner apprentice I am as an organic grower, as I discover just how much knowledge and experience is involved to truly master the craft.
      In Friendship,

  2. This and articles like it make me wonder how the author managed the practicalities of a substantial drop in income, and how they got from being in the unsatisfying job to the more rewarding one.

    I can see possibilities for how it might work if one was starting out from a financially neutral position - I agree that we shouldn't direct young people to university as if that's the only option - but I can't imagine being able to make such a change when already saddled with student debt and other financial commitments.

    I would also have no idea how to approach an application for a job as radically different as that, in an employment climate where jobseekers are expected to have experience of the job they want to do before they can start doing it.

    Do you have any resources to share about the practicalities of such a big change?

    1. Hi Sharon,
      As you suggest, this is far from an easy transition. For me, it involved taking a year and a half off paid work to do a post-grad course in Organic Farming, combined with volunteering at a local horticultural project to gain practical skills.
      This was only possible for us financially because my wife has a steady income, our housing costs are low, and we are not in debt, but it still left us extremely short of money for a while.
      This kind of very drastic change certainly wouldn't be possible for everyone, especially in their 40s. It would have been a lot easier for me if I had started on this path when I was younger, but I am mindful of the saying 'The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago - the second best is today'.
      In Friendship,

  3. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for sharing this, and for the inspiration of your very guided life. I am quite envious of your experience of Druidic blacksmithing.
    In Friendship,

  4. Hi Craig,
    I like that saying - thanks for sharing it. I definitely need to work on dropping resentment of circumstances that dictated a particular life path a long time ago.

    Thanks for sharing detail about how you did it as well. It helps me see possibilities.

    In Friendship,

  5. Thanks for this Craig. Chimes with a lot of things I'm thinking about at the moment. As a teacher, school gets more and more unreal with every year, all in the name of 'standards'. It's interesting that in all the communities we've visited (even the urban ones), we've ended up digging holes in the ground.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)