Speaking of vocation

Let’s start with some good news: the vast majority of people working in education, medicine and, health do so out of a sense of vocation. One of the privileges of my ministry is that I get to work alongside educators and health professionals. Put bluntly one of the reasons they do their jobs is because they care. Their professional (and professed) desire is to use their carefully and diligently developed skills and interests to serve others.

Now the bad news: in contemporary society the notion of vocation has been devalued. This is in fact really, really bad news. Such is our society’s obsession with business and the ‘economy’ that vocational jobs are not only undervalued but underappreciated. I am not using the word appreciated sentimentally. My criticism is that in undervaluing those in vocational employment we fail to appreciate their contribution to the economy. In a book I co-edited (Theonomics) Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper made the following audaciously obvious claim:

‘A banker is no more a wealth-creator than the nurse who saves his life in casualty, and no less.’ 

Tragically over the last thirty or so years the west’s chosen method of doing economics has led to the acceptance of a belief that the banker, or business manager/ leader, is in some way entirely self-made. The worst excess of this way of thinking is the belief that somehow they have ‘made it’ in spite of the system. This I would want to suggest is economic gobbledygook, yet it many ways it is ‘our’ current economic orthodoxy.

Such thinking has spread into our public and charitable institutions. Vice Chancellors, for instance, are no longer regarded  by themselves or those who set their pay and rations as having reached the height of their vocation. Instead they have been re-categorized as educational entrepreneurs operating in the mythical international market for talent. The ‘fruit’ of such faulty thinking is the extraordinary levels of remuneration granted to the Vice Chancellor of Bath and Bath Spa universities.  Vice chancellors, just like the vast majority of corporate managers, are not, of course, entrepreneurs in any academic understanding of the word. They don’t take significant personal risk, they don’t invest their own capital or stake their all on the ‘success’ of the institution they manage and administer. One of the peculiarities of modern economic ‘thinking’ is the category confusion between entrepreneurship and business  administration. I wonder whether the desire to describe, and be described in, entrepreneurial terms can be regarded as an economic  manifestation of capitulation to an emerging culturally economic norm: hubris? Hubris, of course, undermines the economic and theological virtues of care and service. Hubris is by its nature inward looking and self serving even when it pretends to be otherwise. Vocation by contrast is always outward looking. True vocationalists use their interests and passions for the benefit of others.  The ‘average’ academic (teacher and healthcare professional) bears the impact of such crass, sloppy, and hubristic thinking remaining undervalued and underappreciated, whilst their most senior ‘business administrator’ is rewarded as an entrepreneur  and, this matters. It matters economically and, it matters theologically.

It matters economically because empirical research shows that excessive wage disparity seriously harms productivity. And, in this country, we have a problem with productivity.  It matters theologically because significant disparities in income erode our ability to relate to each other and, trust each other. As Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper state economic equality ‘liberates the rich from status anxiety and the poor from abject hopelessness.’ I would add that greater income equality liberates the hard squeezed middle from resentment and exasperation. Equality, it seems to me, makes sense both economically and theologically. It makes sense economically because it feeds through into productivity, it makes sense theologically because it places paramount importance on the value of all human beings and, on the relationships between human beings.

If we, as a society, really wish to re-balance the economy, and achieve higher levels of productivity, I would suggest that a re-discovery of vocation would be a great place to start. We need to value and appreciate those who diligently develop and use their skills to care for and serve others. We also need to stop re-categorizing and paying silly money to those who ‘lead’ vocational institutions.








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