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Brave new world of work

The concept of New Work stems from the German-American social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, who wanted to develop a counter model to socialism and capitalism in the 1980s. An essay by Markus Väth, a pioneer of today’s New Work movement, on the idea and its impacts.

Markus Väth, 28.03.2022
Brave new world of work
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A few years ago I saw a commercial on British television: a German stands on a music hall stage telling jokes, and although he tries as hard as he can, no one laughs. Eventually the curtain falls – and the following sentence appears: “Germans are not famous for their humour – but for their cars.” As is the case in every good joke, the story revealed reality with a sly wink. We Germans are also equally famous – or perhaps infamous – for our thoroughness. That’s how the German language gives rise to the wonderful noun “Grundreinigung”, an intensive clean.

Perhaps it is due to this blend of thoroughness and lack of humour, combined with a specific attitude to work, that a phenomenon called New Work is being studied, tested and discussed especially intensely in Germany. Other nations are said to work to live. In Germany you sometimes get the impression that we live to work. That is why we Germans enthusiastically direct our attention towards everything associated with work. It was in Germany that industrial capitalism first merged with the Protestant work ethic and here that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first to measure the depths and limitations of capitalism. 

The founder of New Work was also German-born – although he moved to Austria as a child. The social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann grew up in Hallstatt, Austria, before migrating to the United States in 1949. There he eked out a living in a variety of jobs before studying philosophy and eventually becoming a professor of philosophy at the Univer­sity of Michigan in 1958. Although he retired in 1999, he remained active in and for the New Work movement until his death in 2021. He continued travelling a great deal, founding New Work centres worldwide and expressing his views on work policy and philosophical questions until the end.

A social-utopian idea

New Work is, if you will, a child of European philosophy. It was not the creation of a manager, a psych­ologist or a management consultant, but a social philosopher who wanted to create a utopia: a better work society in which humans do not exist for work, but work for humans; in which humans seek and find an activity that they “really, really want”. This aspiration, this labour-philosophical revolution is incidentally the reason for numerous misunderstandings associated with the New Work idea today.

You can only understand the concept of New Work if you take a closer look at Bergmann as a person. His family was persecuted by the National Socialists; his mother even feigned suicide to manage to escape from Austria. All this gave rise to the young Bergmann’s desire to make the world a better place, to fight against external control and fascism.

He completed his doctorate on Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophy of freedom he analysed, and translated the human aspiration for freedom to the world of work. In an ideal world humans should be able to work in a self-determined and meaningful way and pursue their own vocations.

Participation in the community and ecological sustainability were also enormously import­ant to Bergmann. In that respect he was a real visionary and considered modern work society as a mild illness that “comes on Monday and goes on Friday”. Accordingly he also viewed the attempts to adapt New Work for today’s work system with great scepticism. 

Bergmann was a radical, but also caring thinker – a philanthropist and discoverer of circumstances who was drawn out into the wider world. As is the case with many great thinkers, his life and work coalesced. Some supporters still equate New Work with Bergmann, but the scene today is divided into social utopians, realists and pure organisation developers who associate and sell New Work with rather arbitrary ideas now that the concept has made it into the mainstream. 
And Germany? What stance does the land of poets and philosophers, of in-depth ana­lysis and the Protestant work ethic take on New Work today? The prognosis was bleak: only a few years ago Frithjof Bergmann stated he did not know any company in Germany that was implementing New Work as he saw it. At the same time, he was naturally pleased about the late acceptance of his idea. 

The appraisal of practitioners is less harsh: there are meanwhile many serious attempts to realise New Work – from small artisanal firms and SMEs to a number of large corporations. If these first attempts are to succeed, however, businesses, institutions and New Workers have to answer the question: what actually is New Work, especially today? And what can it contribute to a debate on the modern world of work? 

Hopeful future scenarios

Frithjof Bergmann’s original social-utopian idea has been superseded by a hotchpotch of approaches and the development of various sub-elements. A unified New Work simply does not exist; there are now separate currents and tendencies. We know this from philosophy and psychology, which historically have also given rise to sometimes very different schools of thought. On one hand, this diversity of ideas enriches the intellectual debate; on the other, it makes it difficult for practitioners to approach the subject of New Work in a structured way. That is why a conceptual offering was made in 2019 for both theoreticians and practitioners in the shape of the New Work Charter. It aimed to combine the social-utopian element with the economy, the fundamental idea of the work that you really, really want with needs of a corporate organisation. This was an advance, say some; a betrayal, say others. 

The most important aspect of New Work that continues from Bergmann to the New Work Charter lies in the emphasis on freedom for human existence and finding meaningful activity.
Markus Väth

In the same way as a company or a soci­ety, a human being must use his or her freedom, remove the shackles of self-inflicted immaturity and develop boldly following the idea of a better future. The Enlightenment teaches us nothing less. 

Perhaps, however, that is also the great problem of today’s New Work: hopeful future scenarios have become rare, and there is a prevailing mood of climate anxiety, COVID exhaustion and the threat of an increasingly complex, conflict-ridden world. All this does not only call societal freedoms into question, but also paralyses people’s will to reach for their own freedom and self-responsibility – not only as a complete human being, but also as a working person. People prefer to withdraw into known territory, stream TV series on the couch every evening or remain within their small envelope of responsibility in the firm. Security becomes the purpose of a fearful society, a motive that outshines all others. But if you abandon freedom to gain security, eventually you lose both – Benjamin Franklin knew that. 

New Work could thus actually regain its social-utopian message, although in a new sense: we should no longer restrict the motive of freedom and responsibility to work. Work that you really, really want cannot flourish in an unfree, angst-ridden society. New Work calls for a “new society” that is dedicated to the values of freedom, self-responsibility and social responsibility, that supports the common good, revolutionises education and sees itself as an optimistic-innovative society. 
The current state of debate shows how far removed we are from such a situation. Suddenly during a pandemic the rampant spread of working from home is meant to constitute New Work – as does a fruit basket or new office furniture. These kinds of reduced definitions not only have nothing to do with New Work, but also dis­credit many companies’ serious endeavours to fill New Work with life – with their own New Work teams, with sometimes great networking across corporate divides, with a new appreciation of working people and with targeted experiments on hierarchy, leadership and cooperation.

To a large degree, New Work has moved away from the utopian ideas of Frithjof Bergmann. But it is beginning to change into something new. Let us give New Work a chance to improve the nature of work. New Work is not only the opportunity to revolutionise the world of work. New Work can help us as a society to look into the future, to seize our opportunity and leave our children a better world. Isn’t that worth the effort?  


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