By Steffan Nikolai Boddin

[This article published on 7/27/2018 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Why we must urgently rethink the working model of work

How can it be that we increasingly question the hamster wheel – and simultaneously join ever faster in the direction of self-exploitation? An attempted explanation – and a plea for a collective rethinking

There seem to be contradictory trends. On one side, more and more young persons seek meaning in their life beyond gainful work and question its centrality in our society. We want to live and work freer, more flexibly and more fulfilled. Alternative models to the classical 9-to-5 job are becoming more popular. Some even dream of working as digital nomads and at the same time traveling around the world. Behind that is always the dream of a self-determined, fulfilled and eventful varied life that offers more than a stuffy office in a grey hometown and periodic Mallorca vacations.

Such new life projects are made possible and encouraged by radical changes in our economic- and social structure: automation, digitalization and the flexibilization of labor markets and through short-term contracts and the outsourcing of many tasks to free co-workers instead of the permanently employed. While unions and many persons in the older generation criticize these developments for good reasons – because of dwindling social security and planability of life, they are somehow right for many young persons. Nowadays, hardly anyone is bound to an employer for more than a few years. We want to stay flexible in every regard. This can be seen as good or bad but the trend is clear.

For me, I see an inner conflict. On one side, I can entirely understand and largely share the criticism of this trend from a leftist perspective. But, on the other side, I would also like to be flexible and shudder at the idea of a permanent job. This view may come from a privileged academic middle-class bubble. Perhaps we would be less relaxed with worse economic conditions. But the fact is this development is advancing and we will not return to the “old” anymore – to the manageable economic structures and working conditions of the 20th century. Still, the “old” is not unconditionally the best – and we have a genuine chance to make our society more worth-living for everyone if we collectively rethink the theme work.

Is Self-Realization and Self-Exploitation a Contradiction?

As suggested at the outset, another phenomenon can be recognized in the younger generation along with the increasing questioning of the classical 9-to-5 model. Paradoxically, the readiness for self-exploitation, for marketing one’s person and essential acceptance of the capitalist system is greater than ever. Many young persons do everything to have a perfect life story, sacrifice their 20s, in an endless learning and traineeship marathon and are ready to work long and hard. Hosts of students must strive for a good-paying and prestigious job with one of the big management consulting firms for example. Often, the status and pay are primary rather than future activity – even if one must regularly work 60-hour weeks for that. The idea of having much freedom terrifies many career-persons. They don’t even know what to do with all that time. In broad circles of our society, status, self-esteem and creativity are still sought on the way of paid work.

These two trends do not seem to be harmonized. The search for meaning in life beyond work and the increasing career-fixation seem to run parallel. While the career-oriented are not hard to find, radical career-refusers are rare. However, those who simply do not want to spend the bulk of their time with work and prefer to set their priorities in life differently are often encountered. While the two tendencies seem so contradictory at first, they are still two sides of the same coin. They are based on the same economic, social and technological revolutions – breaking out of once certain social structures, liberalization and flexibilization of the markets, the digital revolution. The consequences of this are on one hand are greater individual freedoms, a multitude of new possible life-projects and acceleration in nearly all areas of life and on the other side a growing uncertainty, stronger competition and shorter planning horizons. As a reaction, alternative life models are developed and old conventions are increasingly questioned while others try to ensure their own economic and social position. Obviously, there are all conceivable shades of grey between these two ideal types.

The trend of increasing questioning of paid work as a central life theme should be welcomed most warmly. But, how is it compatible with the simultaneous flexibilization and precarious trend of working conditions and with a reality becoming more competitive, demanding and unforeseeable? In other words, how should one freely organize one’s life – with the unfolding of one’s personality, potentials and individuality when one is constantly forced to work full-time to earn a living? There may be a few happy souls with an absolutely fulfilling job. But, most hardly have time and energy for self-realization.

Work Needs are Individual

Many fundamental questions can be raised that lead to the crux of the problem. Isn’t it a shame that work for many persons still represents the main life theme? Isn’t the person so much more than a work-animal – as a gourmet, a potential artist and a discoverer? Does work have an immanent worth giving dignity and meaning, as many maintain – or is this a system-stabilizing lie that we have gullibly swallowed? Shouldn’t “less or better work for all” be demanded instead of “more work for everyone”?

We do not expect any answers to these questions from politics. In the land of the protestant work ethic, many persons still pay homage to paid work as an end-in-itself and salvation-bringer. No politician would win an election without extolling work. If the demand for less work for all would bring voters, it would have been an election program of worker-friendly parties long ago. More people must raise these questions so modern answers can be found. Only in this way can the different developing life projects be future-friendly. Only in this way can we develop our society further in a really sensible direction and make possible more freedom and sovereignty for everyone.

The problem with the increasingly popular “enjoy-your-life” narrative 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 seriously reflecting about a post-work society, we try to comfortably come to an arrangement with the existing system – to achieve the most acceptable work-life balance or leading an eventful varied lifestyle as digital nomads. But, as a rule, 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 uncoupled persons who cannot keep up in our competitive society – but are important for the functioning of the system since they maintain the competitive- and wage-pressure. In this point, the few post-modern critics are least distinguished from the careerists.

This may seem complicated. But, what do we do with this discovery? We must think and act collectively and in solidarity again. The change must begin with a fundamental collective questioning of our world of work and work morality. Then, concrete political demands could resu9lt that aim at a sustainable improvement of the quality of life of everyone.

In his essay “Bullshit jobs,” David Graeber elegantly showed how an alarmingly great number of jobs done nowadays are superfluous and senseless in the sense of the common good and society. The most important and most indispensable jobs – like teachers and care workers – have the worst pay and low social status. Simultaneously, less socially relevant and partly destructive activities (for example, a large part of the advertising branch or investment banking) have the best pay and the most prestige – because what generates profit is honored above all by our economic system. Something is essentially wrong here!

These observations lead to more fundamental questions. What activities and products are really important for our life together? How much work do we need and want in our society? I would dare to say: definitely less than now! Work is not an end-in-itself and is vexatious and strenuous in most cases. It keeps us from the things that are really important: friendship, love, creativity, sports, nature, art and culture – to only name several examples. Therefore, we should take a radical step and end the idealization of paid work once and for all!

What Political Conversions are Necessary?

Technical progress could have enabled us long ago to work less and to have more free time. The points need to be set on the political plane for this to be possible for everyone. A clear increase in the minimum wage would be a possible first step. More people could decide to work less with a constant living standard. We could redefine “full time” perhaps to 20, 25 or 30 hours a week. This could be an incentive to distribute work more justly and on more shoulders – and reduce involuntary unemployment this way. Most working persons are working long hours unnecessarily – while millions of unemployed want paid work but have none. The absurdity of this situation is obvious but discussed much too little.

An unconditional basic income would be a very promising remedy against unemployment in the long-term. Whoever is not compelled to work to survive will probably reflect on how he or she will use their personal energy. Still, the questioning of our work morality must continue and arrive in the social mainstream so an unconditional basic income could gain a majority in Germany. We must think and act more in collective and political categories than only individual categories and guide debate in a corresponding direction.

When these prerequisites are fulfilled and more people are conscious of the value of their (free) time, we could see automation as a liberating force instead of a threat to our jobs. When machines can do our work better, faster and more efficiently, they should! I have more important things to do. And when careerists want to plunge in work because they think they will find their happiness there, they could do that. The main point is giving everyone else the chance to find meaning and identity outside the world of work and to develop more freely. Burying our work fetish is the first step in the liberation of the individual from the straitjacket imposed on us by the performance-oriented society – the unavoidability of dependent paid work and the marketing of one’s person. The work of persuasion is assigned to us.