Bergmann’s New Work, New Culture

The idea of New Work, conceptualised originally by the German-born, American social philosopher, Frithjof Bergmann, is no longer new in the sense of time.  Yet, it’s an idea just as relevant today as it was when it was first brought to the world’s attention nearly 40 years ago.

New Work was first conceived as Bergmann travelled through Eastern Europe of the 1970s and 1980s, witnessing the devastation of industrialisation on Communist countries.  He found similarities in the spirit-crippling activities that many in America’s workforce were undertaking in the early 1980s, particularly in the automobile manufacturing centers of Michigan, where Bergmann was teaching.  Combined with an increasing concern over the automation of factories and workplaces that would lead to massive layoffs and unemployment, Bergmann, now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, began to recognise that Capitalism, too, not just Communism, was stripping people of their ability to find meaning in their lives.  Neither was a recipe for a happier future.  So, he began advocating a system, essentially a new culture, where people could pursue their calling or purpose, something they truly believed in and were passionate about.

The central tenents to Bergmann’s New Work revolve around three values:  autonomy, meaning where one has a say in their job or their own goals; liberty, in the sense of being able to pursue what one really, really wants to do; and participation in society, which envisions a transformation away from a large-scale, industrial economic model to more community-based production.

Bergmann never intended New Work to be an immediate revolution.  Instead, he sought a cultural shift over time as increasing automation theoretically makes wage-labour in an industrial system obsolete, giving mankind an opportunity to reshape the economic system for the better.  Originally, to Bergmann, automation meant robotics on an assembly line, but he was aware, even then, that technology could become all-pervasive in our lives, and that the fear that machines could completely replace humans in the work world would remain a key issue well into the future.

The implementation of Bergmann’s vision requires a significant alteration to existing Capitalistic and Political drives for full employment and never ending growth.  The pursuit of growth over all else has caused what has been called the “four tsunami’s” by the New Work community – wealth inequality; the squandering of natural resources; the ruination of our climate; and the ruination of our culture, none of which is sustainable over the long-term.

New Work, instead, prefers a structure where humans actually work less, but more equally.  To function properly, Bergmann designated only 1/3rd of a person’s time to gainful employment. To survive on less income, another 1/3rd of a person’s time is to be focused on smarter consumption, such as eliminating waste, and self-supply, such as growing food for one-self or participating in building one’s own home, as examples.  The final 1/3rd is the crux of New Work, spending time on one’s values, dreams, desires, and hopes, essentially pursuing something that matters deeply to the individual, that they are passionate about.  It’s this final piece, pursuing one’s calling or purpose, that creates a culture where people are more engaged, innovative, empowered and happier.

Bergmann had an opportunity to put his ideas into practice beginning in 1984 when General Motors was considering how best to greatly reduce their workforce.  Bergmann could foresee the consequence of a one-industry town, like Flint, Michigan, being torn in half if GM pursued layoffs in a traditional manner.  One half the town would be unemployed, the other working full-time, even overtime, something that would undermine the social fabric of the city.  So Bergmann established the first Center for New Work and proposed a system where one half of the employees worked for 6 months of the year, while the other half worked the other 6 months.  All employees would thus work less, but it would give each the time to uncover and pursue what they were passionate about.  The newly created Center for New Work would act as a sort of small business incubator, and include training, mentoring and so forth.  Ultimately, Bergmann hoped his proposal would be better for employee happiness and the town’s culture.

While Bergmann’s ideas were not implemented in full, a number of success stories came out of the discussions with the labour unions and employees to warrant continuing to build on the New Work ideals.  Other Centers of New Work were introduced in the US and Canada.  And Developing Countries, such as India, and African nations, like South Africa, have more recently begun experimenting with New Work to tackle pressing problems, such as chronic unemployment issues.  There is also a large amount of analysis related to New Work in the German-speaking countries as Bergmann was heavily influenced by the German philosopher and cultural critic, Freidrich Nietzsche.

As Millennials begin to dominant the work force in terms of numbers, they bring with them a more socially conscious mindset than previous generations.  This will likely keep proponents of New Work busy for some time come.

Don Jurries

Featured Image:  Book Covers (Publishers: Zero Books, Arbor-Verlag)

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