Away with the work ethic!

Why we urgently need to rethink the construct “work”

How can it be that we are increasingly questioning the hamster wheel – and at the same time increasingly hopping towards self-exploitation? An attempt to explain – and a plea for a collective rethinking.

In fact, there seem to be contradictory trends. On the one hand, more and more young people are seeking meaning in their lives beyond work and questioning their centrality in our society. We want to live and work freer, more flexible and more fulfilling, alternative models to the classic 9 to 5 job are becoming more popular. Some even dream of working as digital nomads while traveling around the world. Behind it is always the dream of a self-determined, fulfilled and varied life, which has more to offer than a stuffy office in the gray hometown and periodic Majorca vacations.

Such new lifestyles are made possible and favored by radical changes in our economic and social structure: automation, digitization and the flexibilisation of labor markets. These lead to a proliferation of non-classical, often short-term working relationships, such as temporary contracts and the outsourcing of many tasks to freelancers instead of permanent employees. While trade unions and many people, especially in the older generation, criticize these developments for good reasons – for example because of dwindling security, social security and predictability of life – many of us young people are somehow quite right. For nowadays, hardly anyone wants to commit to an employer for more than a few years, we want to remain flexible in every way. You can find it good or bad, but the trend is clearly visible.

For me, I find an internal conflict in this respect: On the one hand, I can understand the criticism of the above trends from a left perspective quite well and also largely share. But on the other hand, I also want to be flexible and I am afraid of the idea of ​​a permanent position. It may be that this view comes from a privileged academic middle-class bubble, and that we would find it less relaxed in poorer economic conditions. However, the fact is that development is progressing and that we probably will not return to the “old” – ie the manageable economic structures and employment relationships of the 20th century. What I want to point out is that the “old one” is not necessarily the best – and we have a real chance to make our society more worth living for all if we think collectively about work.

Self-realization and self-exploitation – a contradiction?

As indicated at the beginning, another phenomenon can be observed simultaneously with the increasing questioning of the classic 9-to-5 model in the younger generation. Paradoxically, the willingness to self-exploit, to market one’s own person, and the fundamental acceptance of the capitalist system seem greater than ever. Many young people do everything they can to maintain a perfect CV, sacrificing their 20s in endless learning and internship marathons, and are willing to work long and hard. Flocks of students are still looking for a well-paid and prestigious job. For example, at one of the major management consultancies. Often the focus is not on future work, but on the status, on the pay and on the winners. It does not matter if you have to do regular 60-hour weeks. When you think you have a lot of free time, many career people are terrified – they would not know what to do with themselves. This shows that status, self-esteem and identity in many parts of society continue to be attained primarily through the labor market.

These two trends, which at first glance seem to disagree – the search for meaning in life beyond work and the increasing career fixation – seem to be in parallel. While the career-minded are not hard to find, radical career objectors are still rare. However, those who simply do not want to spend most of their time working and who would like to change their priorities in life, are more and more likely to encounter it. And as contradictory as the two tendencies seem at first glance, they are two sides of the same coin. Because they are based on the same economic, social and technological upheavals: the breaking up of once secure social structures, the liberalization and flexibilisation of the markets, the digital revolution. The consequences of this are, on the one hand, increased individual freedoms, a multitude of new possible life plans and an acceleration in almost all areas of life, on the other hand growing insecurity, stronger competition and much shorter planning horizons. In response, they develop alternative life models and increasingly question old conventions, while others try to secure their own economic and social position as far as possible. Of course, there are also all imaginable shades of gray between these two ideal types.

In principle, the trend of increasingly questioning paid work as a central purpose of life is to be warmly welcomed. But how is it compatible with the simultaneous flexibilization and precarisation of working conditions and with an increasingly competitive, demanding and unpredictable reality? In other words, how to make one’s life free – by developing one’s personality, potential and individuality – when one is constantly forced to work full-time to make a living? There may be few lucky ones who have an absolutely fulfilling job. But for the vast majority of eight hours of daily working time (or more) hardly time and energy for self-realization.

Work needs are individual

Now you can ask various fundamental questions that lead us to the crux of the problem. For example, is not it a pity that work continues to be the main purpose of life for many people? Is man not so much more than a workhorse – connoisseur, potential artist, explorer? Does work, as many claim, have an intrinsic value that gives us dignity and meaning – or is this a system-stabilizing lie that we have swallowed in good faith? Should we not demand “less, and then better work for all,” instead of “more work for all”?

At the moment, politicians should not expect answers to these questions. In the land of Protestant work ethic, in which too many people still pay homage to work as an end in themselves and as a source of salvation, no politician wishing to win the election will risk it. If the demand for less work for all in this country would bring voters’ votes, it would probably long be found in the election programs of employee-friendly parties. Nevertheless, it is necessary that more people ask these questions. And that we can find timely answers to them – because only in this way can we meet the different life plans that are currently developing in the future. And this is the only way we can develop our society in a truly meaningful direction and give everyone more freedom and sovereignty.

The problem with the popularity of “enjoy-your-life” narratives of many hamster wheel critics is that it does not fundamentally question our understanding of work – and the value we ascribe to it individually and collectively. Instead of thinking seriously about a post-work society, we try to individually arrange ourselves as comfortably as possible in the existing system – ie to achieve a pleasant work-life balance or to lead a more diversified lifestyle as a digital nomad. As a rule, however, we accept the system and its precarious working conditions for ourselves and others. At the same time, we accept the existence of a large and growing number of dependents who, for a variety of reasons, can not compete in our competitive society – but are important to the functioning of the system as they maintain competitive and wage pressures. In this point, so few postmodern full-time critics differ from the careerists.

So far, so complicated – but what do we do with this realization? We must somehow manage to think and act collectively and in solidarity – and at the same time meet the increased need for individual freedom. The change must begin with a fundamental, collective questioning of our working world and morals. This may then result in concrete political demands aimed at a lasting improvement in the quality of life for all.

David Graeber has elegantly demonstrated in his essay ” Bullshit Jobs ” how superfluous and meaningless (in the sense of affability for the common good and society) is a frighteningly large part of the jobs that are being done these days. And how the most important and indispensable jobs – like educators and carers – are those with the lowest pay and low social status. At the same time, socially unimportant and sometimes even destructive activities (for example, a large part of the advertising industry or investment banking) enjoy the best pay and the most prestige – because our economic system primarily rewards what generates profit. Here is something fundamentally wrong!

These observations lead to further fundamental questions: Which activities and products are really important for our coexistence? How much work do we need and want in our society? I would dare to lean out of the window and say: Definitely less than now! Work is not an end in itself and in most cases annoying and tedious. And it keeps us away from the things that are really important: friendship, love, creativity, sports, nature, art and culture – just to name a few examples. We should therefore take a radical step and end the idealization of gainful employment once and for all!

Which political decisions are needed?

Technical progress would allow us to work much less and have more freedom over our time. For this to be possible for all, however, the course had to be set at the political level. A first possible step would be, for example, a significant increase in the minimum wage. As a result, more people could decide to work a little less while maintaining their standard of living. In addition, we could redefine “full time” – about 20, 25 or 30 hours per week. This would be an incentive to spread the work more fairly and on more shoulders – and incidentally we would reduce involuntary unemployment. For most workers currently work unnecessarily much – while millions of unemployed do not work, although they want. The absurdity of this situation is actually obvious, but is far too rarely pronounced.

A particularly promising remedy against work delusions would probably be an unconditional basic income (BGE) in the long term. For those who do not have to work hard to survive will be more likely to consider whether and how much he / she wants to work – and what he / she wants to use his / her precious energy for. For a BGE to become majority in Germany, however, the questioning of our work ethic must first go on and arrive in the social mainstream. And we need to think and act more in collective and political rather than individual categories – and steer the debates in the right direction.

If these conditions are fulfilled and more people are aware of the value of their (free) time, we can see automation as a liberating force rather than a threat to our jobs. If the machines can do my job better, faster and more efficiently, they should! I have more important things to do. And if careerists still want to go to work because they think they are lucky, they can do that. The main thing is that everyone else gets the chance to find meaning and identity outside the working world and to develop more freely. The burial of our work fetish is the first step towards the liberation of the individual from the forced corset imposed on us by the meritocracy – the inevitability of dependent wage labor and the marketing of one’s own person. Until it comes to that, there is probably still a lot of (persuasive) work ahead of us.

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2084: Why the venture into the unknown is worthwhile

“It was a bright [warm] day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

It would hardly have been surprising if Paul Raskin’s utopia of a “homeland earth” had begun with these words. Given the current global developments, a dystopia based on Orwell, an updated Twenty Eighty-Four version, would be a likely outcome in an attempt to look to the future. But Raskin delivers with his Journey to Earthland [2] the exact opposite: the vision of a positive future.

The co-founder and President of the US Tellus Institute has spent many years developing models and scenarios to describe humanity’s potential development pathways in terms of water and energy consumption, economic and demographic growth, and CO 2 emissions (Raskin et al., 2010; Raskin et al 2001, SEI 2006).

In Journey to Earthland, Raskin summarizes the results of his work and outlines in the first part of the book the path of human history so far, which describes the well-known curves of uninhibited growth. Arrived in the here and now, the author shows possible development paths of the future (various Tomorrowlands ). Of these different paths, however, the author chooses neither the dystopian nor the business-as-usual scenarios (if there is any difference between them). Instead, in the following section, the author looks at the “Great Shift,” the viable path to a civilized, planetary future.

This path represents a departure from the previously dominant growth paradigm. Raskin describes this way (and this is what distinguishes the book) that readers are not afraid of a future of privation and renunciation. Raskin succeeds in doing this in the third and last part of the book by taking a look at this future or, better still, by looking out of this future in the year 2084, a snapshot of Future II, the “perfect future”. He emphasizes the many gains in the coexistence of people through a new global “we-feeling”, without denying diversity and individuality.

That does not mean that Raskin has written down pure fiction or even castles in the air. His scenarios are based on solid scientific work (see Raskin et al., 2010). This is also the foundation of his vision of the future of Earthland , which, albeit fictitious, is in the best sense of the word a scientific or science fiction .

In Part 1, Raskin begins the journey into “Homeland Earth” in the forgery through human history, which he describes as a history of ongoing exponential acceleration. While the Stone Age lasted about 100,000 years, the following phases of human history are each one-decade shorter. The early phase of civilization, beginning with sedentary life of 10,000 years, on the modern age, including nation states and industrialization (about 1000 years) to the planetary phase of globalization, which may have passed before the end of the century. Today, after entering the planetary phase, whose many changes have brought us to a historic crossroads, mankind must make a directional decision despite the described acceleration: The signpost shows the three main paths “Great Change”, “Conventional Worlds” and “Barbarization” , The author sketches these paths with their different branches from “collapse” to the “new paradigm” before embarking on the path of “great change” with his readers.

In the second part of the book, Raskin describes the guard rails of this path to planetary civilization through two retrospectives of the future in 2084. In the first part of the book, he follows the turn “Political Reform” on the path “Conventional Worlds”. In this way, the many voices for a reform of the current political rules of the game will slowly become established and lead to the formation of a global social democracy. The world would become a “well constructed shopping center” that could service most people, but not allow people and nature to flourish. The second review comes from a “world of fortresses” after humanity has followed the path of “barbarization”. Raskin sees the emergence of climate disasters, pandemics and social chaos as a consequence of this future.


Following on from these future reports, Raskin contrasts the adherence to the growth paradigm (scenario “market forces”) with the departure from this (“Great Change” scenario). He uses these two scenarios to show the range of possible developments of variables such as the world population, working hours, carbon dioxide emissions or energy consumption (Raskin et al., 2010).

The third part of his book is dedicated to a report from the civilized future in 2084. This report first tells the story of the Great Transition in its five stages: Takeoff (1980-2001), Rolling Crisis (2001-2023), General Emergency (2001-2023). 2023-2028), The Reform Era (2028-2048) and Commonwealth of Earthland (2048-2084). To give some color to the “homeland of Earth”, Raskin again borrowed from Orwell and translates its tripartite division into the super- states of Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia into new ” superregions ” of Earthland. While Orwell’s tripartite division clearly reflects the ideas of the “First World to the Third World”, Raskin also tries to take into account today’s ideas of geographic, cultural and ideological differences: Agoria, a market-believing “Sweden 10 times”, about ecodemia , an economic democracy socialist traces, to Arcadia, a region of idyllic, rural and anarchistic dreams. Detailed descriptions of political and economic structures, of the people themselves, of education, spirituality as well as justice and environmental aspects give a picture of Earthland with great courage to detail. Finally, the Future Report – and thus the book – ends with words of gratitude to the previous generations who have taken the first steps on the path of Great Change.

In a time when, despite niggling doubt, in the global North the passive persistence of preserving the status quo in the false hope is the supposedly safer choice than the active departure into a new future, one thing is lacking above all else: a concrete idea of the future – a goal for which a departure into the unknown is worthwhile. Although it may not be the original task of scientists to design such a vision of the future, it is the task of every human being who is committed to the survival of (human) life on earth. And this group should – like Paul Raskin – confess all who do science.


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