Acton Commentary

Good Work Never Ends


In an undiluted if unwelcome acknowledgment of new economic realities, the CEO of insurance giant AIG spoke candidly earlier this month when he admitted that retirement ages in developed nations would need to be raised. “Retirement ages will have to move to 70, 80 years old,” said Robert Benmosche. “That would make pensions, medical services more affordable. They will keep people working longer and will take that burden off of the youth.” While Benmosche’s conclusions are firmly based in the calculus involving increases in life expectancies and declining birthrates, they also provide a timely occasion for reexamining popular attitudes toward work and retirement. Where work is seen merely as a necessary evil, it is natural to see retirement as a well-deserved escape from a lifetime of drudgery and toil. The biblical view of work, however, presents a somewhat different picture that shows us that the good work of service to others ought never end as long as we live.

Two recent examples from West Michigan help to illustrate the fact that God designed human beings to be blessings to others through their work and service. John Izenbaard of Kalamazoo, Michigan, turned 90 years old this past April, and under any proposed system would have long been eligible for retirement benefits. But Mr. Izenbaard has been working for 74 years at Hoekstra’s True Value Hardware and has the same goal today as when he started there in 1936: “to be a ‘blessing’ for customers.” When asked about the possibility of retirement, Izenbaard responded, “I look forward to coming to work. I really enjoy it.” Izenbaard’s work infuses his life with meaning, as he uses his knowledge, experience, and skills to serve his neighbors.

Fred Carl Hamilton of Wyoming, Michigan, is a comparatively youthful 71 years old, but when faced with a disappearing retirement fund, he “realized he would have to get a job if he wanted to keep his house.” Hamilton took an unconventional approach. Rather than looking for a local retail job, he decided to innovate. “I was walking around my house thinking, ‘There’s got to be something I can create,’” said Hamilton. Experimenting over the course of three years, Hamilton created the Iron Bite, a tool for weight lifting equipment that secures weights to the bar by using “a spring-loaded push rod to let weight lifters gently pinch rings together and easily slide the device on and off the bar.” Reflecting on the loss of retirement funds that prompted him to pursue a second career in invention, Hamilton says, “It’s not all bad, because I always had a good job, and now I realize how people are struggling out there. And I can put people to work now.”

While these two stories show that work arises out of a range of possible motivations, from Izenbaard’s intention to be a blessing in his work to Hamilton’s desire not to take on a retail job like Izenbaard’s, they both show that the divine institution of work orients us towards activities that serve others. Whether out of selfless altruism or simply the human instinct to be creative, work places us in a position to productively bless others with tangible goods and services.

Recognition of this fact about work challenges the standard conception of retirement as a time to focus on self-gratification after a lifetime of unfulfilling and meaningless toil. But it also casts doubt on a model that sees what a person does in their retirement years as finally achieving significance. The bestselling author Lloyd Reeb describes a halftime transition in life as moving “from success to significance.” Understood rightly, this kind of perspective can be helpful in reorienting our priorities toward service of others. Not all jobs are good jobs, and not all work is good work. If we are unable to see how our work serves other people, or how it might be anything but grinding and alienating, then an emphasis on significance can occasion a new outlook, a change in careers, or a move to different kinds of work, whether waged or not. But understood wrongly, this formula can reinforce the idea that work itself, even if successful in worldly terms, is of little or no importance. John Izenbaard would no doubt take some umbrage at such a suggestion.

In his book on the subject of work from a Christian perspective, Lester DeKoster goes so far as to call work “the meaning of your life.” One of DeKoster’s most powerful insights is that we don’t need to look beyond our daily work for significance in serving God and others: “It is your daily work, whatever your job, that does give meaning to your life, not because you will now decide to put meaning there but because God has already done so.” God has given us the order of work as the primary way in which we serve others, and thereby serve him.

Take a look at John Izenbaard and Fred Carl Hamilton. That’s a vision of good work that never ends.