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.