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This Unemployment: disaster or opportunity?


Alkire, S and Black, R and Clough, D and Gregory, E, This Unemployment: disaster or opportunity?, Theology, 97, (780) pp. 402-413 . ISSN 0040-571X (1993) [Refereed Article]

Copyright Statement

Copyright 1994 Sage

DOI: doi:10.1177/0040571X9409700602


The concept of unemployment should be discarded. We must develop a new and broader understanding of work and its place in life if we are properly to address the state of social distress of those who are without paid employment. Economists disagree over the extent to which unemployment is economically disastrous. What cannot be denied is that the present unemployment in Western industrial economies is a human disaster. A paradigm shift in the understanding of the place of work in life is required. Our task in this paper is to develop a Christian foundation for this transformation.

Three observations show that, without major structural changes in the economy, high levels of unemployment will remain a permanent feature of Western industrialized economies. First, the percentage of the workforce unemployed shows an upward trend: the average unemployment rate for the European Community rose from 2.9 per cent in 1969-73 to 9.5 per cent in 1990-92. Second, the duration of unemployment has also risen: in 1962 the average time an unemployed person had been without work was 6.3 months, compared to the 1989 figure of twenty-one months. Third, the number of jobs is decreasing because of structural and technological advances: some estimate that three out of four jobs currently being done manually could be automated by the year 2000.

The human cost of unemployment is stunning. The present unemployment creates low income, inadequate housing, and poor nutrition, leading to ill-health, stress, depression, deep levels of alienation, and increased mortality rates.

Amartya Sen provides a valuable analysis of the impact of unemployment. He suggests the current concept of employment has three elements:

  1. the income aspect: employment gives an income to the employed;
  2. the production aspect: employment yields an output;
  3. the recognition aspect: employment gives a person the recognition of being engaged in something worthwhile.

The exclusive nexus between employment and these three goods results in the current denial of these goods to a significant section of our community. In itself this presents a profound moral problem because it represents a commitment to exclude this group of people from human wholeness. Even more significantly, it reveals that the present normative understanding of the relationship between human goods and employment is both immoral and unnecessary. Unemployment need not, and must not, mean being poor, uncreative, or socially devalued. Thus our task is to break the nexus between employment and the goods of income, production, and recognition. In order to achieve this, it is first necessary to develop an understanding of work which is far broader and richer than paid employment. It is not our intention in this paper to explore the complex nuances of the concept of work. Rather, our aim is to identify its morally relevant dimensions and their relationship to one another. The two categories of work critical to our analysis are instrumental work, which is a means to an end, and non-instrumental work, which is an end in itself. Second, the wider concept of work must take its place as only one among many aspects of a life lived in all its fullness. Such an understanding is obtainable by combining resources from both the biblical and natural law strands of the Christian ethical tradition.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:Religious studies
Research Field:Religion, society and culture
Objective Division:Culture and Society
Objective Group:Religion
Objective Field:Religion and society
UTAS Author:Black, R (Professor Rufus Black)
ID Code:125713
Year Published:1993
Deposited By:Vice-Chancellors Office
Deposited On:2018-05-01
Last Modified:2018-08-24

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