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Spring Budget 2023: Childcare, pensions and God’s good plan for our work

Peter Ladd

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It felt like - perhaps unsurprisingly after the chaos of last year - a fairly anticlimactic budget. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to big spending pledges in recent times, with recent years seeing both of the UK’s main parties seeking to outdo one another in lavish promises, but for most of us, amid economic downturn, an energy crisis and the rising cost of living, the measures announced by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt may have come across as somewhat underwhelming. Statistics cited by the Times this week indicated that merely 6% of people believed that their finances would be better off as a result of what is being introduced.

In part, the Spring Budget reflects both a practical and a political reality; a practical reality which accords with the state of global finance at the moment (further imperilled by the unexpected drop in Credit Suisse’s share price this week) and a pragmatic one which sees the Conservative Party trying to restore its reputation for fiscal prudence after the sheer carnage that marked the Liz Truss’ ill-fated stint as Prime Minister; indeed, in recent months polls have suggested that it is now the Labour Party which the nation trusts most to manage the economy, quite a contrast to the traditional perception of each party’s strengths and weaknesses.

One thing which is clear however, is that the Government are keen to encourage people back to work to boost the economy. Emerging out of the pandemic, more workers than normal have moved into early retirement, leading to a shortage of workers, greater strain on the state, and lower productivity. Research from Demos (a leading think-tank) indicates that there are more than 100,000 more people between 50-64 who, due to a long-term health condition, are now no longer part of the workforce since the pandemic began.

It is these shifts which lie behind two of the government’s most eye-catching measures: the provision of 30 free hours of childcare per week for 1-2 year-olds, to encourage mums back to work, and the scrapping of the lifetime limit on tax-free pensions, whereby previously skilled high earners had been discouraged from continuing working by the high rate of tax, a problem which had been particularly identified within the NHS.

As Christians, how might we respond to these proposals? What does the Bible tell us about the place of work within the Christian life, and how should we think about moves from the Government encouraging us to return to the workplace? Does God even care about this kind of question at all?

As Christians, we believe that we have a better story for all of life, and that the gospel impinges upon everything we do, including our work.

“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 10:31

We don’t believe in a sacred-secular divide, where God only cares about some parts of our life (like our prayers, our Bible-reading and our church attendance) and not others. Although we believe that we are to be distinct from society, we don’t believe that we are called to be entirely separated from it (ie. not all Christians are called to be in full-time Christian jobs, although we are all called to be full-time disciples and to be salt and light in the world around us!).

Perhaps the best place to start is by looking back to God’s good design for the world in Genesis 1-2: before creation fell, within God’s design for humanity, mankind was already working, tending the garden.

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
Genesis 2:15

Work - regardless of the challenges we might face in it - is originally a good thing. In fact, it is not only a part of God’s original creation, Scriptures suggests it will also be part of the new creation! The Christian image of heaven is not one of us all sitting around in the clouds strumming our golden harps; in Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, we read:

“They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”
Isaiah 65:21

In the very final chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, John writes that “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” (Revelation 22:3)

Indeed, we can see the inherent goodness of work from the fact that even God himself does work! When Jesus was asked about working on the Sabbath during his time on earth, he replied by saying:

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”
John 5:22

Although work can sometimes feel frustrating, or even like drudgery, it is originally part of God’s good creation.

Like all things in this world, however, it has been tainted by the Fall. Mankind’s original task in the garden became harder after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, as creation fell too, and every relationship - including that between mankind and the earth - began to break down.

"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.”
Genesis 3:17-18

Work became far harder for Adam, as creation began to choke under the curse; work was no longer just life-giving, but now became a “painful toil” which no longer produced just fruit but also “thorns and thistles.”

It can be no surprise, then, that now our work sometimes feels like labour, rather than a joy, whether as a result of tiredness at the daily grind, frustrations with colleagues or management, or apathy towards the tasks we are doing.

Interestingly, this seems to be a major factor in the UK’s difficulties with the workforce. Polling indicates that attitudes among older workers about their work are far more negative than those in Germany and the USA. Research from the Phoenix Group shows that the most common reason given in the UK for leaving the workforce was that workers did not want to continue working (35% of respondents said so), and that only 58% of workers liked their job in the UK, as opposed to 74% in the USA and 73% in Germany. Over 70% of those who have left the workforce in their early 50s since 2019 do not wish to return to work.

Certainly, when considering whether or not we ought to be officially in formal employment or not, our motivations are important. The Apostle Paul writes in quite strong terms about the dangers of idleness, citing the fact that even though he (as a gospel-worker) had the right not to work, he still chose to:

“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”"
2 Thessalonians 3:7-10

It is imperative, however, to distinguish between not being in formal employment and being idle: the two are not the same. There are many ways one might be ‘working’ without being formally employed, whether that be in raising children, volunteering with charities, or serving within a church. All are working (and in some cases, that might even be harder than a paid employee!), and all are contributing to society. One of the most extraordinary examples I can remember from growing up was of an 80-year-old gentlemen who - at the same time as caring for his sick wife - faithfully volunteered with my local youth group every week, offering us his wisdom and his time. Everyone has something they can contribute.

There have always been different seasons of life, and some of those will be more appropriate than others to work during. Ecclesiastes 3 lists just some of them:

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build...”
Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

For all of us, there will be a time to be born and a time to die; and similarly, there will be a time to work, and a time to retire!

In fact, one of the potential dangers of the Government’s moves to introduce free childcare for young mothers is that some mothers feel obliged to go back to the workforce and to spend less time with their children; we believe in choice for young mums, and that both options are valuable and important.

Paul’s point is not about formal employment. Rather, it is that idleness is to be avoided, as he makes clear in the verses that follow in the 2 Thessalonians passage:

“We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.”
2 Thessalonians 3:11

And as Christians, it is important to remember that we should never make work an idol. We do not live for our work, but for the Lord. God made this clear when he instituted the Sabbath for the Israelites:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.”
Exodus 20:8-10

To return to an earlier verse we looked at, we do not eat or drink or work just for their own sake, but for the glory of God. The Gospel provides a healthy perspective on our work: nothing (and this includes our jobs!), even if it is a very good thing, can satisfy us apart from God, as the book of Ecclesiastes makes plain. In Chapter 2, the writer talks about all the great projects he has undertaken, and explains that none of them have satisfied him:

“My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

Accordingly, while we can recognise the good impulses behind the Government’s reforms this week - a strong economy is likely to be beneficial for all of us - it is important that we don’t idolise paid employment. Our work will not satisfy us, and there are many ways in which we can contribute to society.

Ultimately, Scripture (as much as we may want it to!) does not often come with hard and fast rules: it does not lay down the ideal retirement age or expectations for childcare. It is up to each of us to discern where best we can contribute to God’s Kingdom, using the talents, passions, and in some cases, direct calling, He has given us.

If that is in paid employment, we pray that he will use you for His glory. And if it is not, we pray exactly the same thing.

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