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Crisis of Work

by: Miroslav Volf

In the preface to Work in the Spirit Volf helps us understand why he set out to write this book: “The vocational understanding of work was developed and refined in the context of fairly static feudalist and early capitalist societies on the basis of a static theological concept of vocation. Modern societies, however, are dynamic. A single, permanent, salaried, and full-time form of employment has given way to multiple and frequently changing jobs. Such a dynamic society requires a dynamic understanding of work.” As Volf develops this theology he notes a general crisis of work. It is important to note that the statistics Volf presents in this section were current when Work in the Spirit was first published in 1991.

Today we can observe a general crisis of work. It frequently surfaces in the negative attitude of workers toward their work. Many people are deeply dissatisfied with the kind of work they are doing. As seriously as we ought to take people’s attitudes toward their work, they are not the most important aspect of the present crisis of work. As subjective states, attitudes are often deceptive. For various reasons people often invest the most demeaning work with great significance.¹ On the other hand, they often superimpose on their most creative tasks dissatisfaction with other areas of their lives. More serious than subjective negative feelings about work is the objective crisis of work. For this reason in the following I will deal less with workers’ subjective attitudes than with their objective situation as workers.

Various aspects of the crisis of work constitute problems for which a theology of work must propose solutions. As I develop a theology of work in the subsequent chapters, however, I will not come back to deal with each aspect of the crisis analyzed below. Such an endeavor would go beyond the scope of this study. But the theology of work I am proposing is consciously developed to provide a theological framework within which responsible and creative thinking about solutions to these problems is both required and possible.

Aspects of the crisis of work

In this section I will analyze only those aspects of the crisis of work I consider particularly important. The crisis can be felt in various degrees throughout the world. But the Third World is suffering under it disproportionately more than the First World or even the (disappearing?) Second World. This is particularly the case with respect to the aspect of the crisis of work that I will analyze first: child labor.

Child Labor

While paying a visit to some people who work at the recycling plant at the garbage dump near Osijek, the city where I live, I met a young boy. He is nine years of age, an abandoned child in the care of distant relatives. After twice failing first grade, he left school illiterate. A shack at the garbage dump became his home in the summer and for a good part of the winter, too. He works from sunrise to sunset, trying to survive, often by eating the food he finds in the garbage.

In economically highly developed countries (and in my home country, Yugoslavia, as well) such tragedies happen on the fringes of society, if at all. We associate them with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution there. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, it was the plight of small children who had to work up to eighteen hours a day that pricked the consciences of Western Europeans. Today, when children work in these countries, however, they work, not to survive, but to earn spending money to acquire the latest line of fashion clothing or some high-tech product. Neither their circumstances nor their parents force them to work. Instead, the parents’ concern is “to fill those little sponges with knowledge as early as possible,” creating “superbabies” and “whiz kids.” In many parts of the world, however, child labor is not an exception, but a rule enforced by a dire need. It is estimated that 50 to 200 million children under age fifteen are in the world’s work force. Many more (40 million street children in Latin America alone) work without being gainfully employed, performing various activities that “contribute to the maintenance of the household and to the well-being of its members.”² Often children feed the families because the mothers have to take care of their smaller siblings and the fathers are unemployed.³ Children are often as productive as adults, but for a fraction of the cost. And employers have less trouble putting them up to dangerous and crippling jobs. They are among the most exploited and physically and psychologically abused workers in the world’s work force. The majority of working children are “condemned to a cruel present and to a bleak future.”⁴


In the world today, some 500 million people are either unemployed or grossly underemployed. The majority are those who have not yet worked (the young) and those who are too difficult to retrain (the old). With the increase of productivity due to rapid technological advances and with the expected high growth of the world population, in many parts of the world the future does not hold good prospects for employment. Some researchers estimate that by the year 2000, “the world’s job-seekers are expected to increase by another 750 million.”⁵

Full text available in print only.

  1. See below, 159.
  2. Munroe, Munroe, and Shimmin, “Children’s Work.” 369.
  3. According to some studies, in India, children account for 23 percent of total family income (“All Work,” 22).
  4. “Children under 15,” 116.
  5. Labour, 8.
Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf (born September 25, 1956) is a Croatian Protestant theologian. He has been educated in Croatia, United States and Germany, where he earned doctoral and post-doctoral degrees from University of Tübingen. Volf currently serves as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

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