Discouraging Work

Once again, France is the scene of massive demonstrations, widespread labor strikes, and even rioting, as hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest a new labor law that makes it easier for companies to fire workers under the age of 26. In France's nearly socialist economy, there is nothing like Donald Trump and the "you are fired" apprentice show. But ironically, this new labor law is actually a last-ditch attempt to boost employment. Because the legal protections for workers in France make it nearly impossible to fire them, even when they deserve it, companies are afraid to hire new people. Hence, the unemployment rate rises, standing today at 10 percent -- twice the U.S. rate. So what do the young, unemployed do? They demand the same benefits the older workers have enjoyed for years, and, in the great French tradition, storm the Bastille. They refuse to see that the country's economic system can't survive this way. As Robert Samuelson writes in the Washington Post, "[France's] needs are plain: to assimilate a large and restless Muslim population of immigrants . . . , to pay for the rising health and pension costs of an aging society and to compete in the world economy. But . . . from 2001 to 2005, annual growth averaged only 1.6 percent. By accident and design, the French have discouraged work." Samuelson points out that the French spend fewer hours at work than almost any other "advanced" nation. As a French official quoted in the New York Times said, the problem is, "You have to explain to the French people that they have to work harder." What we are witnessing is how different worldviews work out in practice. France, you see, is the most secular state left in the West. Their non-existent work ethic and rising unemployment rate are symptoms of a bigger problem, that is, a shift from a Christian view of work to a secular view. I wrote about this in the book How Now Shall We Live? In the Christian view our work is seen as valuable because we do it to the glory of God. Sacred or secular work -- preaching or scrubbing floors, as Martin Luther put it -- doesn't matter. What matters is what we do to serve God. This ethic fosters a desire to work for the common good, to save, to benefit one's workers and society as a whole. Don't tell me worldviews don't matter. What we're seeing here, what is commonly called the Protestant work ethic, is fueling the growth of the American economy today at a rate more than twice that of France. We actually have a shortage of workers to fill jobs, which is why, unlike France, we are assimilating so many immigrants. The secular work ethic, on the other hand, currently on display in France, is "get all you can, do as little as you have to." Eventually you get to the point where workers are demanding payment and protection as an entitlement, not as something they have earned. The new labor law may sound reasonable. But it's not enough. What really needs to change in France is the hearts and minds of the people so that they learn to see work not as a burden to be avoided, but as an important and even desirable service.


Chuck Colson


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