1. Anxieties of today: our context
a) Context and predominance of the economic system on our conscious thinking
b) Change of economic structure, rise of precarious employment
c) Pre-eminence of technology, metrics and functionalism
2. What our society and economic system does to people
a) Functionalism of our system that affects choices we make and our actions
b) Distortion of our identities
c) Values that stem from this system: myths of meritocracy, measureable outcomes, deserved fates
d) Dehumanization by metrics and technology
e) Sense of hopelessness in face of overwhelming scope of problems
f) Loss of idealism in young people due to cynicism and functionalism
g) False reality: consumer affluence, taking care of self
3. The response of our Christian faith to this system
a) Importance of articulating our reality
b) Relating faith to our lives
c) Doctrine of Justification
d) Continuing our Journey in Faith
e) Sharing our Thoughts and Reflections
1. Anxieties of Today: Our Context
- What concerns or worries do you have when you think about the future?
- Are you optimistic and hopeful when thinking about the future?
- If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?
- Is there anything that limits your confidence in being able to do that? If so, what?
Our Context Today
What are college and university students anxious about today? What thoughts lurk in the back of their minds? This was a big topic of reflection for me as I prepared for this retreat.
Of course I wanted this to be a great time of fun, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, and being a refreshing little time away after a busy term of school and studying. But I also wanted this to be a meaningful time where we could provide food for substantial thought on what really matters in life, and to offer a perspective that’s real and grounded in truth. So that’s really why we’re here: (1) good time and fun; and (2) meaningful reflection on our lives.
It’s been a while since I was in undergrad like yourselves, but I do still have vivid memories of that time – it really does seem like yesterday. My sense of what is at the forefront of your minds is concern about what you will do after you graduate. I sense uncertainty about the future in a very competitive society.
Let’s be honest about our context: times have really changed and they are continuing to change. Your parents had their own sets of challenges and struggles. They were very real. But your generation has its own struggles and challenges that are very different, but real nonetheless.
Back in the day, the path to economic security and prosperity for your parents’ generation was more set: study hard, get into a good school and program, get into a professional school hopefully, and your future is pretty secure. And for the most part, your parents have done quite well for themselves financially and economically. For most of you, they were able to provide a fairly secure material upbringing.
But those times have changed radically. No longer is such a path guaranteed. Much of this has to do with the radically different economic landscape. I’m no economist, but I’ll provide some thoughts on how things have changed in recent decades, and especially over the last decade or two.
Technology has been the main driver of change. Technology is increasingly replacing what humans do. In the earlier days of technology, humans still had to do the bulk of work. In the industrial age, humans provided most of the labour required to make things. That was the golden age of industrial unions. People – who provided the bulk of economic output – had much more power to counterbalance the interests and power of business owners.
But much of that work has now been replaced by machines and robots. As technology increased its pace of advancement, so too did the nature of human labour: human labour became increasingly divided between that which required more sophisticated knowledge and training, and that which did not. But here’s the thing: machines and robots increasingly replaced much of the manual labour required, and they also increasingly began to do more of the sophisticated work, squeezing out even more human labour.
Even until a few decades ago, the supply of skilled and educated labour was relatively low compared with overall demand. This is why it was much easier to secure a good job and career if you received a good education. But people got wind of that and began to focus more and more on education. We live in a highly educated society nowadays. So this higher education has not only increased the supply of educated workers, this supply has increased amidst a decreasing demand for such labour. Technology continues to advance and do what previously only humans could do. Computers can now perform highly analytical functions that only humans could once do.
So this leads us to our situation today. Companies face enormous competitive pressures because of all this technology. This means they must be as efficient as possible – meaning maximize revenues while incurring the least amount of expenses. Human labour is often the greatest expense for any organization, so eliminating or minimizing the need for human labour is the main goal of efficiency. Hiring an employee full-time is very expensive. Not only do you have the full-time salary to pay, you have additional costs like payroll, CPP and EI remittances, and benefits to pay for. You also have less flexibility to eliminate that position – there are severance and other costs to pay.
So what happens? Companies, governments and organizations of all sorts rely more and more on short-term contract work, where they have more control over the supply of labour while minimizing all those extra expenses of having a full-time employee. Not only that, technology is now so advanced that you can control and predict where and when you need labour – that you can actually contract out. This is the “gig economy” that Uber has mastered. They don’t “hire” any employees to do the work of driving and delivery, but pay for gigs.
The gig economy. The freelance economy. Precarious employment. These are words that describe the new reality. Which is why I feel for all of you. Working in that context doesn’t feel very secure. And for the fewer positions that do exist, more and more qualified and bright young people like yourselves are gunning for.
2. What this System Does to People
- Do you agree with that summarization of today’s society and economy?
- How does this context affect the way we think and the choices we make?
I presented my analysis of our current context, and we had a good discussion around that. So the next question is: what does this context do to us as human beings? This has been a big topic of reflection for me.
This is an important question, because if we are not conscious and aware of how our environment and context shapes us, we can never go beyond our immediate environment. We will forever just be by-products of the environment. That in and of itself is not a bad thing, but as I will discuss, if the environment is harmful in any way, or if it diminishes a fulfilling and complete life in any way, then we will unknowingly live a life that is diminished in fulfillment or completeness. And that is a great misfortune because we only have one life to live as we know it, and should we not make the most of this life that we have?
Human nature is such that we tend to value whatever gives us security, status and advancement. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Whatever gives me advantage is what we will tend to value. And what it comes down to is power. Power over my well-being and financial circumstances, power in terms of the esteem I hold in the eyes of others, power in my standing among others. At your stage in life, and in the context of our economy today, you’re probably focused on the power of security and financial well-being.
Whatever gives us power is what we will naturally tend to focus on. So what gives us power in today’s society? I believe that in your immediate context, power is the ability to slot into one of the fewer and rarer spots in our economic system. To put it into more concrete terms: if you’re in a business program, getting a coveted spot at a Big 4 accounting firm, or landing an I-banking job at Goldman Sachs or one of the big Canadian banks. Or if you’re a liberal arts program, it’s often seen as a means of getting into a professional degree program like law. Or if you’re in a science undergrad, the goal there too is often a professional degree program like medicine, one of the T’s – physical or occupational therapy – or pharmacy, etc.
We’ve become functional people. What we are doing through education is to serve the functional purpose of gaining that power of security and financial well-being. Our entire education system too has been structured to lead people to slot into the economic system.
So what happens when we fall into this functional mode of living? It begins to distort our innate identities and our sense of who we are. We begin to believe that only if we can adapt ourselves to fit into society’s systems are we okay or alright. And so what do we do? We conform ourselves to better fit into this system. We do the right things to make ourselves more “marketable”: do the right extra-curriculars, build our “leadership” in various organizations, get good grades, choose the bird courses that will pad our GPA, etc.
What happens in the midst of this activity to fit ourselves into the system: if we’re not aware and conscious, then we allow our identity to become fused with our ability to succeed in this system. In other words, our worth in our own eyes becomes dependent on how well we fit into this system. If our innate self is somehow not compatible with what’s marketable, we feel pressure to devalue that innate self and change that innate self to fit in with what’s marketable.
The real danger is that we adopt the ability to fit into this system with one’s worth as a person. The myth that we have propagated as a society is that it is a meritocracy, and that the outcomes in life correlate to your ability and effort. We start believing that we deserve our fate in life. Those who have “succeeded” in this system have done so because they deserve it. Those who have “failed” deserve that failure. In this day and age and in our society, being unemployed is about the worst fate one can suffer. It is very demeaning to one’s self-worth, and the message society tells them is that you somehow deserve it. It’s the topic of another discussion to explore whether those who have “succeeded” really do deserve it while those who don’t deserve that failure. I definitely have thoughts on that.
What technology has done is it has attempted to quantify and measure everything. The whole field of analytics is the attempt to quantify and measure people’s behaviour. The field of marketing has been transformed by search engines. Keyword research reveals exactly what people are thinking and the exact language they are using. Marketing is then a function of using that language to mirror people’s thoughts. Job performance is now measurable and quantifiable: your ratings by the latest app determines how well you are doing in meeting customers’ needs. Your whole generation has been measured from the time you were young: standardized testing has been a norm for you, and in math contests you are measured up against everyone else.
The effect of all of this data-driven technology is that it is dehumanizing us. Our worth is measured by how we stack up against the metrics. Where is the room for our human expression? Our creative artistry? Our pondering about the deeper questions of life? All of this takes a back seat in technology’s relentless march forward. Those who prosper nowadays are those who are able to master and utilize this technology to make business processes even more efficient. But even here, the greatest rewards are reaped by even fewer people. Technology and apps change our lives in big ways, but the greatest rewards are reaped by fewer and fewer people. Does this great fortune they earn make them worth more as human beings, while those who do not share in those rewards are worth less? Society seems to tell us that this is so.
So that’s what’s going on in the economic realm, which is a big part of the backdrop for your lives. But there’s a lot more going on too. You all grew up in a very connected world. You literally grew up your whole lives with the internet. I won’t date myself by saying when I first started using the internet, but it was much later on in life! You’ve seen problems from many corners of the world. You’ve seen acts of violence take place, you’re witness to our ecological crises, and you see acts of fear and hate all over social media and the internet. The vast scale and scope of problems in the world makes us feel small and helpless to change anything.
Not only that, you’ve seen the self-centred nature of many leaders. People don’t trust institutions anymore. We’re more alert to hypocrisy and naked plays for power. All of these things breed cynicism. Cynicism pushes us more inward and away from the public sphere.
To add to that, consumeristic culture has become so pervasive and powerful, and it goes hand in hand with the economic system. We are inundated with things demanding our attention and time, that we are just so distracted! YouTube, Facebook and other platforms make their money by having a large audience to sell to advertisers, which is why they want and need people to be addicted to them and spend hours being entertained on them.
Your generation has grown up in a completely saturated corporatized environment, and one fuelled by cynicism. Is it any wonder that I see much less idealism in today’s young generation?
In this context, it becomes easy to withdraw from concerns about public life and become completely immersed with trying to secure one’s position and being entertained. We’ve allowed the commercialized messages to seep into our consciousness, and attaining material affluence becomes the goal. When that’s the goal, achieving or maintaining it takes so much of our time and energy. There’s little time for much else, so we will try to alleviate the pressures with partying when we’re young, hanging out with friends, or other diversions to relax.
Reflecting on meaning takes a back seat. Meaning is often reduced to simple tangible things like enjoying the company of friends and family.
So is this the good life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality?
I am going to suggest that all of this is a false reality that we have constructed for ourselves. We have become so scientific, so technical, that we have lost the ability to see reality differently, beneath and beyond what is visible on the surface.
I will invite us to open your eyes to see a new and different reality. We will reflect on what the Christian faith has to say to the reality that we have been living in, and the new reality it speaks about. We will not have time to go into any depth on what our faith has to say, but my hope is to get you thinking about this very important issue.
3. Response of Faith to our Context
- Do you think Christian faith has anything to say about our current reality?
- What, if anything, does faith mean to you in your real, everyday life?
- What questions do you have about Christian faith and belief?
What is the good life? And what does it mean to live a good life?
People have been asking this question since the beginning of humankind. Every epoch and every generation has had its own views of what it was to live a good life.
What does our faith have to say about the good life?
Earlier today we attempted to articulate some of our current reality. I believe that it’s very important that we learn how to articulate what it is we’re going through. Only then can we identify what some of the challenges are and then reflect on how we can address them. Since we addressed some of our current reality, I will attempt to reflect on how the Christian faith speaks to this reality, and how it helps us enter into a new reality.
Importance of Articulating our Reality
- Must always be reflective of your context and circumstances
- Reflect on what that context is doing to you, how it is shaping you, how it is affecting the way you think
- Must think critically about that: is this truth? Is this the best way to live?
- Then being able to articulate this
Relating Christian Faith to our Context Today
- My main goal for this retreat: get you thinking about our context, how it affects us, and the possibilities of how faith might relate to our everyday life
- It’s tough, when so much of your time and energy is spent on your studies
- There is so much that faith has to say about our life today
- Learning the content of this faith, and growing in it is a life-long journey
- I will share just one nugget:
- Doctrine of justification
- Have they heard of it? What’s their understanding of it?
- “Justified by law” and by “works” – what that means in our lives today
- It’s dependent on OUR actions and what WE do
- Justification by faith in Christ: what GOD has done for us
- GOD renders us acceptable – just as we are, not by what we do
- Goes to our core IDENTITY
- We are God’s children, God’s creation, acceptable, beloved and beautiful as we are, not conditionally only if we attain certain markers of acceptability
- Doctrine of justification
Continuing Our Journey in Faith
- How can the church help you in your faith journey?
- What can we do together to encourage each other in our journeys?
- Forum for sharing our thoughts, experiences and struggles
- Something during reading week: get-together, retreat, etc.
- Summer Bible study
- Gaining consensus on some concrete actions for us as a College Group
Sharing our Thoughts and Reflections
- What have you learned from this retreat?
- What thoughts or feelings do you have as we leave the retreat?