Keynote speech by Dr Alessandra Smerilli during the opening night of the conference “The changing world of work – a transversal justice issue”
Work is such an important dimension of being human that not being able to express ourselves through the work of our hands makes us feel that we do not belong in the society in which we live. Work is indeed a means to acquire the necessities of life, but it is at the same time so much more. Through work we tell the world who we are, what we can do: we do not really know a person until we see him or her working. Work is an expression of our dignity, our commitment and effort, our ability to collaborate with others, because it is always ‘with’ or ‘for’ someone. And therefore, it is never a solitary act. Work is cooperation, it is the place where we truly become adults, it is our contribution to making the world more beautiful. For all these reasons, preventing a young person from working is a violent act, it is the violence of preventing him from participating in this great project. Work can also cause pain: we experience more fatigue from what we cannot do well than from what we can do well. Pain in work also comes from encountering limitation, for example due to rules and procedures, which sometimes repress our creativity.
In the Christian tradition, work has great importance.
Throughout the Bible, we see its human dimension. God’s first call in the Scriptures was to cultivate the garden of Eden. Amos, Gideon, Judith, David all receive their calling while working. In the most important event of the Old Testament, Moses sees God in the burning bush while tending sheep. Jesus summons his friends and calls them to become “fishers of men.” This reveals work as a place for theophany because the Biblical God likes ordinary life. Work is vital. The story of Salvation in the Bible is also a story of work!
Work nowadays is undergoing huge and radical change. Tomorrow you will address specific issues arising due to the transformation of work and its culture:
AI and robotics and their consequences, platforms, and so on.
And you ou will reflect on how to create the conditions for work to be ‘dignified and sustainable.’
So, we ask ourselves: what makes work dignified? What makes work sustainable? And what are the obstacles?
1. Work well done: The meaning of work
“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. Each job has its dignity”. Martin Luther King expressed himself with these words in a famous speech in Memphis on March 18, 1968, a few days before being assassinated in that same city.
Are we ready to say that every job is worthy?
The doctor and nurse who save lives are equal to engineers who design and build missiles and landmines? It would be difficult to argue if by “worthy” we mean a career that contributes to the development of lives that are rich in meaning, to the personal flourishing of those who do it, to the well-being of the community in which they live.
Work, especially today, is not just how we make a living; it is also an opportunity to put our talents to good use, to give back, and to contribute, with our fellow workers, to the destiny of our communities. It is a source of meaning, self-esteem, deep satisfaction; it is a road to excellence. But these opportunities are not always granted. There are, in fact, tasks that alienate, humiliate, that hurt those who are forced to do them and that harm society too. Meaningless and unworthy jobs that steal meaning and dignity from otherwise very worthy people. Some workers have been profoundly and negatively transformed to the core by these jobs.
For a job to bring dignity in a meaningful way, it must have two connected but distinct dimensions. The first is the very nature of the work, its usefulness, and its ability to mobilize creativity, skills, ingenuity, and relationships: the doctor who saves lives, the engineer who builds bridges made to last, the cleaner who makes liveable the environments in which we work and operate, the baker and hairdresser who feed us and make us presentable, the artist who creates beauty for generations to come. But what about those who design landmines, or the exploding “green parrots” which look like toys so children reach out to play with them? Whether or not they are legal, surely they are not worthy.
The second aspect of a job that brings dignity goes hand in hand with the first and is related to the conditions in which each job is carried out. There may be decent jobs rendered unworthy by external conditions: the admirable job of picking tomatoes can be degraded when it involves inhumane exploitation. Some jobs are worthy or unworthy by nature, and some activities are made more or less worthy in relation to the environment and the conditions in which they are carried out. You will address time pressure issue tomorrow…
At the same time, even when external conditions degrade work, humans are capable of ennobling and giving meaning to the work of their own hands. This is how Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor, put it: At Auschwitz I quite often observed a curious phenomenon. The need for “work properly done” is so strong as to induce people to perform even slavish chores “properly.” The Italian bricklayer who saved my life by bringing me food on the sly for six months hated Germans, their food, their language, their war; but when they set him to erect walls, he built them straight and solid, not out of obedience but out of professional dignity.” Doing a bad job because you are in degrading conditions is even more degrading. Continuing to do good work, even if you experience degrading conditions, can help you survive.
This episode recounted by Primo Levi in many of his works has become a paradigm of the ethics of work well done, of the wall put up straight for reasons much deeper than reward.
2. Sustainable work: work and care
In his first homily, Pope Francis put great emphasis on one word: “To safeguard”. Work is also caring:
“Every day, millions of people cooperate in development through their manual or intellectual activities, in large cities or rural areas, with sophisticated or simple assignments. All are expressions of a concrete love for the promotion of the common good, of a civil love.
Our vocation to work connects inextricably with the way we interact with our environment and with nature. We are called to work, to “till and to keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15), that is, “to cultivate the ground of the earth to serve our needs without failing to take care of and protect it.” Work is a path to growth, but only when it is an integral growth that contributes to the entire ecosystem of life: individuals, societies, and the planet (ILO 2019).
Work is not just about having a job or “making things.” All forms of work are about relationships with others. And because work is a relationship, it must include the concept of care because no relationship can survive without care. As a matter of necessity, work is respect and care for creation, keeping in mind future generations and all affected by such work. Work as care is about promoting the common good.Caring is an integral component of work, enabling it to be transformative. This is shown by God creating Adam and Eve to care for each other and for creation.
In the relationship between work and care, it is necessary to underline two intersecting points: care work and the care that makes work possible, and the dimension of care inherent in every job. In the encyclical Fratelli tutti, paragraph 64, Francis writes: ” Let us admit that, for all the progress we have made, we are still “illiterate” when it comes to accompanying, caring for and supporting the most frail and vulnerable members of our developed societies.”
How is it that we have managed to advance and achieve enormous progress through work, yet we are far behind when it comes to the ability to care? Let me offer a fairly radical interpretation. We have not mastered a true semantics of care because we have always relegated care to the private sphere, and particularly to women, and to gift and gratuity. This led us to consider care as less relevant socially compared to other functions. We all agree that work gives us dignity, to the point that not being able to work causes social malaise, never mind the economic aspect. We see work as human flourishing and realization. But this does not extend to care. Are we personally and socially convinced that taking care of other people, not just family, is something that makes us worthy of living on this earth? What does it mean to take care? It is about gestures of attentiveness, taking care of whoever needs care at any given moment: helping an elderly person to eat or get dressed, reading fairytales to a child, cleaning the surroundings of those who live there cannot do it, and so on.
We are not talking about organized professional care. We need hospitals, nurses, and so on. Usually, when we meet a person for the first time, we introduce ourselves (and then the first question: what’s your name), and then we ask them: what do you do? What is your job? What do you study? We do not ask them: who do you care for? Care is usually considered as a distraction from more important jobs, “outsourced”, usually to women; and people who need to live from this occupation are often paid miserably. The very fact that their remuneration is lower than the average suggests that care does not have a high social standing. We need to bring care onto the public scene.
The way forward is to consider the issue of care, and of taking care, as a commitment of the whole community and not of individuals or individual families. To do this, it is necessary to change the social norms of work and care: work and care are interconnected, and we will not be able to value care if we do not restructure the way we understand work.
The Canadian philosopher Jennifer Nedelsky proposes that everyone do less paid work and take up care activities as part of a normal job contract. Thus care activities would be an integral part of working hours for everyone. No one should work more than 30 hours a week, and no one should spend less than 22 hours a week on caring activities: for the care of children, the elderly, the weak, in the family and in the local neighbourhood, and for the cultivation of our relationships and our humanity. The ’30 hour and 22 hour’ division in a week should not be taken as a fixed norm: there will be periods where you need to concentrate on formal work, and others where care requires more time. The important thing is that there is a balance throughout the year. It should be like holidays: a right and duty.
Only if we can socially and legally value care, will we be able to ensure that it becomes an essential dimension of every job. “Work that does not show care, that destroys creation, that endangers the survival of future generations, is not respectful of the dignity of workers and cannot be considered decent.”
Achieving eutopia (good place) instead of utopia (not place) requires collective commitment and a broad vision, a long-term horizon.
3. Technocratic paradigm and the myth of meritocracy
I turn now to the many obstacles that limit the dignity of work and its sustainability. I will highlight two that are very closely related, and which Pope Francis recently brought to our attention in Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum: the technocratic paradigm and the limitations of meritocracy.
According to Pope Francis, when we speak of the technocratic paradigm, we are referring to a way of understanding human life and action “that is deviant and contradicts reality to the point of ruining it” (LS 101). In other words, it consists in thinking “as if reality, good, and truth blossom spontaneously from the very power of technology and economics” (LS 105).
In Laudate Deum we read:
“In recent years, we have been able to confirm this diagnosis, even as we have witnessed a new advance of the above paradigm. Artificial intelligence and the latest technological innovations start with the notion of a human being with no limits, whose abilities and possibilities can be infinitely expanded thanks to technology. In this way, the technocratic paradigm monstrously feeds upon itself.” (LD 21).
One of the most visible consequences of the technocratic paradigm is the drive to go faster and faster, to produce more and more, and to place a value on it all. Economist Kate Raworth, in her book “The Donut Economy,” offers a critique of the technocratic principle. The author thoughtfully asks why certain economic models have endured through history, even though they were thought to fit poorly to reality. She finds that the power of images and graphs underpins the success of so many economic theories over the centuries. Therefore, if we want to change economic thinking, we must change its representations. And so, from Cartesian axes where the best is always at the top and to the right, we move to the doughnut, where all effort is made to stay within the bounds of its edible part.
In one passage, she dwells on the principle of non-satiety and growth: “spatial metaphors such as ‘good is upward’ and ‘good is in front’ have become deeply embedded in Western culture, shaping the way we think and speak…” (p.61). And she concludes that a profound shift is needed in our metaphors: from ‘good is upward’ to ‘good is in the balance’.
The constant desire for more and more as a measure of progress pushes us into a vicious cycle in which time and the good life are sacrificed on the altar of supposed improvement in material well-being. But in reality, at the end of the day this insatiable drive produces malaise and unsustainability.
The other factor that undermines the dignity and sustainability of work is the meritocracy narrative. One of the reasons why the most menial jobs today are also the most demeaning and are not considered dignified is the false narrative of merit and meritocracy, the yardstick by which we judge the difference between people because of what they do for a living.
The ‘merit enhancement’ theme with its praise of ‘meritocracy’ (merit-based society) is open to question. Merit has always been an ambiguous word because it is deeply linked to the fascination that merit exerts on all of us. We would all like to be deserving of our successes (less of our failures!); no one likes to think that their nice career is due only to good luck and recommendations.
But if we take a look at how merit is used, yesterday and today, in the concrete choices of the economy and society, we realise that it has almost never been on the side of the poor. The poor have often been discarded and then blamed because they were considered undeserving, thus convincing them that they were not only poor but also at fault and cursed. The word merit derives from the Latin merere, meaning to earn, from which we get mercede (earnings, payment). Meritocracy is the ideology of merit. Like all ideologies, it takes a word that we like and that fascinates us, and then manipulates and perverts it. And so, in the name of appropriating different value to the deserving and the poor, the meritocratic ideology ‘has become the ethical legitimisation of inequality’.
All it took was to change its name and inequality went from being an evil to being a good. There were three steps: 1. considering people’s talents a merit and not a gift; 2. reducing people’s many merits to those easiest to measure (nowadays who sees the ‘merit’ of compassion, meekness, humility?); 3. reading talent as merit leads to remunerating merits differently and thus widening the gaps between people.
Focusing on tangible merits with measurable results risks giving less and less weight to intangible merits: how much is the kindness of a person in an organization valued?
One can say: “merit is not just talent, it is a combination of talent and commitment, so what is rewarded is personal commitment”. However, here we forget the crucial element: sometimes, being able to commit oneself is not a merit, it is above all a gift. Coming home from school and having time to do homework, instead of having to work, is not a merit. If we are honest, we have to recognize that what we are and become is 80/90 % gift and 20/10 % merit; meritocracy, on the other hand, overturns this percentage.
A social system that rewards the individuals who are already capable does nothing but leave the less capable, who are generally not so because of demerit, but because of their living conditions, further and further behind. Don Milani, whose centenary we are celebrating this year, knew these things very well. He knew that his boys in Barbiana were not undeserving; they were not at fault, they were just poor. May this centenary make us reflect on the ideology of merit that is becoming a new religion of our time, a religion without gratuitousness and without God.
The second false assumption is that the market, and, more generally, the logic of competition, is the most effective mechanism in recognizing and rewarding such merits.
Recent research (Cf. Castillo and Bernard) cites the so-called meritocracy paradox: merit-based selection processes that emphasize the value of merit end up generating ‘winners’ that tend to exclude others. Economists Aldo Rustichini and Alexander Vostroknutov noted in an experiment that the subjects who had previously participated in games of skill were much less inclined to support the fair distribution of a prize than the participants of a game of chance. The idea of skill is sufficient to make people more favourable to unfair results. When success is determined by merit, each victory can be seen as a reflection of a person’s virtues and values. In this regard, the economist Robert Frank in his book Success and Luck (2016) analyses the fortuitous cases and the coincidences that are behind so many success stories. Among the successful entrepreneurs there are many unworthy people rewarded only by chance, and among the ‘failed,’ many worthy people that have simply found unfavourable conditions. This does not mean that successful people do not have merits, but that the link between merit and result is weak and indirect (like when you ‘fight’ a disease). Feeling that we are successful people because we are worthy creates exclusion mechanisms.
Allow me to add a side-note: What merits do I have compared to my talents? Much of what we believe to be merits are intellectual or cognitive skills. Like life itself, being gifted has been given to me as a gift. The logic of making the talents bear fruit reaffirms that we are all born different and that those who have received more will be asked for more, in constant pursuit of the common good and not of individual exaltation of success.
The Pope has more to say on this distortion: “A second consequence of the so-called “meritocracy” is the change in the culture of poverty. The poor person is considered undeserving and, therefore, to blame. And if poverty is the fault of the poor, the rich are exonerated from doing anything. This is the old logic of Job’s friends, who wanted to convince him that he was guilty of his misfortune. But this is not the logic of the Gospel, it is not the logic of life: meritocracy in the Gospel is instead found in the figure of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He despises his younger brother and thinks he must remain a failure because he deserves it; instead, the father thinks that no son deserves to eat the acorns meant for the pigs.”
In conclusion: changing the angle of observation
As we are called to work to promote a culture that removes obstacles to the dignity and sustainability of work, we seek the guidance of Pope Francis’s vision and suggestions.
The first necessary step towards decontaminating the harmful effects of meritocratic rhetoric is reaffirming the difference between social and market value. Especially in the world of work, it is essential to underline more and more forcefully that what the market rewards, is not always what society values the most. The enormous wealth produced by excessive rents and financial speculation certainly cannot be considered an indicator of the social value of these assets. The vast profits linked to the gambling sector certainly cannot be taken as a measure of the industry’s contribution to the common good, nor can the salaries of mega managers who earn 2,500 times the median wage of their employees (and then fire them to take a trip to Mars instead of making life livable on earth). Is the CEO 2500 times more deserving than his employees? This absurd imbalance conceals an empty logic because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of intrinsic value. Remuneration practices in today’s market are contingent on a myriad of external conditions that influence supply and demand, modifying the balance of prices and wages. they have nothing to do with the value of the worker generating work, the significance of what he does, and his contribution to advancing the common good and the flourishing of humanity.
To dream of a different future, Pope Francis asks us, as the People of God, “to choose fraternity over individualism,” to listen to the “cry that comes from the margins of society” and to put those who are marginalized at the centre as active participants in the process of change.
If the discarded are not ‘guilty’, but we recognize that they are excluded by a system which values competition and accumulation, and this mechanism works since childhood, then they can teach us how to change the system.
The most important path that Pope Francis offers us for the future is to change the perspective from which we look at the world: “Sisters and brothers, I am convinced that ‘the world can be seen more clearly from the peripheries.’ We must listen to the peripheries, open the doors to them and allow them to participate. The suffering of the world is better understood alongside those who suffer. In my experience, when people, men and women, have suffered injustice, inequality, abuse of power, deprivations, and xenophobia in their own flesh– in my experience, I can see that they understand much better what others are experiencing and are able to help them realistically to open up paths of hope. How important it is that your voice be heard, represented in all the places where decisions are made. Offer your voice in a collaborative spirit; speak with moral certainty of what must be done. Strive to make your voice heard; but please, in those places, do not allow yourself to be constrained or corrupted. ” 
So how do we change course?
The priority is clear for those involved with the topics of work and workers: to restart by focusing on the ‘discarded workers.’ This category is broad and heterogeneous: workers with low professional qualifications or with obsolete skills (think of older workers and jobs transformed by digitization and automation processes), intermittent, seasonal, and on-call workers, workers employed in informal and unregulated sectors, workers from migratory backgrounds, workers employed in strenuous and dangerous activities, workers who suffer unfair and degrading employment conditions.
Clearly a society cannot “progress by discarding”. A good cannot be good for me if it is not good for the other person as well.
“We have to find ways for those who have been cast aside to act, so that they become the agents of a new future. We have to involve people in a common project that doesn’t just benefit the small number who govern and make decisions. We have to change the way society itself operates in the wake of Covid. When I speak of change, I don’t just mean that we have to take better care of this or that group of people. I mean that those people who are now on the edges become the protagonists of social change. That’s what’s in my heart.” (Pope Francis, Let us Dream).
I want to conclude with the words on work that Pope Francesco gave to young economists in Assisi in September 2022: “You are mostly students, scholars and entrepreneurs, but do not forget about work, do not forget about workers. The work of our hands. Work is already the challenge of our time, and it will be all the more the challenge of tomorrow. Without dignified work and just remuneration, young people will not truly become adults and inequality will increase. It is possible, at times, for a person to survive without work but he or she does not live well. So while you create goods and services, do not forget to create work, good work and work for everyone”.
Sr Alessandra Smerilli, Secretary for the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development
 And also feeds corruption, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/college-admissions-cheating-scandal.html