Before the pandemic, recent university graduates often told me about their struggles finding work in their field of study. Since the pandemic, most young adults I talk to have given up on the idea of finding permanent employment in their field of training or choice. In many ways, the pandemic has functioned as a revelation of the state of our economics. And if we have eyes to see (not only the benefits enjoyed by some but also) the tragic consequences of our economic system, then we are responsible to discern our opportunities in the midst of the challenges.

Part of “adulting” (a new verb for successfully moving through what’s been called “extended adolescence” or “emerging adulthood”) is successfully navigating one’s entrance into the economy independent from parents. But the pandemic has revealed the degree to which young adults (among others) face a series of new and unique hurdles that previous generations either didn’t face as much or had social supports in achieving.

Many (young adults but others as well) are facing new and serious economic hardships because of the ways in which the pandemic has added to already intolerable challenges with the rapidly accelerating gap between rich and poor, university-education expectations and overwhelming student debt, skyrocketing housing/childcare/healthcare costs, the emergence of the “gig economy” and pervasive minimum- or low-wage positions far below “pay ceilings,” decrease in unionized or pensioned work, the all-consuming nature of remote work and the rise of “burnout,” mental illness and rampant loneliness, the loss of the future tense due to the ecological crisis, etc. At the same time, the richest individuals and corporations have seen astonishing increases in both government subsidies/bailouts and revenue/market share.

Recent Canadian research serves as one example of this phenomenon: the employment rate for late teenagers and young adults dropped nearly in half when the pandemic hit; through the pandemic, the gender divide in employment has grown as the responsibility for childcare has fallen to women far more than men; workers in the vulnerable sectors of the economy dropped by 25% over the last year; and Indigenous workers now earn roughly 1/3 less than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Much of this plight that young adults are facing is captured in recent books like Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (2020). As she says, 

Millennials live with the reality that we’re going to work forever, die before we pay off our student loans, potentially bankrupt our children with our care, or get wiped out in a global apocalypse. That might sound like hyperbole – but that’s the new normal, and the weight of living amidst that sort of emotional, physical, and financial precarity is staggering, especially when so many of the societal institutions that have previously provided guidance and stability, from the church to democracy, seem to be failing us.

What is one to do in light of these economic realities exposed so clearly – and experienced so painfully by so many – by the pandemic? My suggestion is that these challenges present a significant opportunity for Christians to advocate within civil society – through organizations and government awareness-raising and advocacy – for a transition to “an economy of care.” This is a Christian opportunity to influence our societies for economic well-being and shalom shared more equally.

Kate Raworth calls it “doughnut economics,” the space of human flourishing that exists when an equitable social foundation assures people of the basics needed for life (water, food, health care, education, income and work, energy, social networks, affordable and dignified housing, gender equality, and political participation) without crossing the “ecological ceiling” which leads to the collapse of our shared ecosystem (ocean acidification, climate change, ozone depletion, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, etc.). It’s an economic vision deeply resonant with biblical themes of justice and jubilee – but greatly at odds with neo-liberal and neo-colonial fantasies of never-ending economic growth.

Christians have ample resources to meet these economic challenges revealed by the pandemic; in fact, to be leaders in socio-cultural, political, and economic change. It is within the Christian scriptures that we discover the interconnectedness of all of life. It is within our long tradition that we have countless examples of self-sacrificial responsibility in the midst of change, upheaval, and catastrophe. The question today that requires penetrating Christian thought and courageous Christian action is what it means for Christian whole-life discipleship when our human choices (from the small and insignificant to the large and consequential) have planetary impacts. Will we, in good Modernist/Enlightenment fashion, continue our focus on the individual or repent and remember that we also live in communities?

This raises the provocative question that lies deep at the heart of the Christian faith: who is my (economic) neighbour? (Luke 10:29) To what extent have Christians embraced a neoliberal economic ideology that runs counter to loving our neighbour for their flourishing? The pandemic is revealing the state of our economics – and the ideological fantasies that fuel them. Will we perceive the realities all around us? How will we respond? The pandemic gives Christians an opportunity to realign our economic priorities and pursuits with our confessed theology so that the gifts of Creation’s economic aspect can be equitably shared with all our global neighbours.

What is one thing you can do to contribute, as a Christian, to the economic justice and shalom of your community?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​