The New Worker

How do we really, really want to live? What makes us humans happy? What should we do personally for ourselves and what for the community? How will we work in the future? The Austrian-American philosophy star Frithjof Bergmann, father and proponent of the New Work Movement, counsels individuals, companies, and the governments of India and South Africa on how to put a new form of working into practice. Even one or the other physical bout he got into over the course of his mission did not discourage the now 87-year-old professor emeritus. In this interview he speaks about the “automation tsunami” that will hit humankind in the near future and about what he really, really wishes for.

“I advised people to use their time of unemployment in a constructive way and think about what they really, really want.” “That’s when you got beat up?” “Yes.”

You have already worked as a dishwasher, boxer, dockworker, factory worker, bank clerk, screenplay writer, and business consultant. Do you know how many different jobs you have already done?

You want a precise number? It has been 20 jobs, for sure.

Which ones were actually fulfilling?

Many! But my dearest memory is my time as a boxer. I wasn’t as strong as most of the others but very quick instead. I walloped people before they even noticed. That gave me great, great satisfaction. Moreover, it is a job that I could benefit from time and again in my later years.

You mean back then when you told people who had been fired and were unemployed in Flint how to make best use of their free time?

Yes. Flint, Michigan was the cradle of General Motors. It was something like the Volkswagen-Wolfsburg of the United States. Flint was the epitome of a functioning, prospering industry. I also worked there back then. But as a consequence of the automation and robotization at the end of the 1970s many factory workers in the automobile sector got fired. The city plunged into depression. I thought: How can we make the best out of this situation? So I advised people to use their time of unemployment in a constructive way and think about what they really, really want.

That’s when you got beat up?

Yes. In the beginning the workers had absolutely no sympathy for me. Now and then it got physical. Some workers started a fight with me. I certainly don’t have a problem with physical contact. I just had the advantage of being faster.

A lot is known about what you told people in this time, after the mass layoffs…

I told them over and over again they should think about what they really, really want.

But we know less about how people responded to your advice. What happened afterwards?

Flint was famous for its massive, massive strikes. At first people protested all the time. But then they started approaching me for advice. Some opened cafés, others became gardeners, but one of my favorite examples is a guy who had worked at the assembly line for years. He was black from all the oil. He hated his job. When I asked him what he would prefer to do, it turned out that he longed for a “white”, for a clean kind of work. Shortly thereafter he completed a yoga teacher training and built up his own yoga studio, which he ran quite successfully for some years. But we lost contact after a while.

That sounds like a picture book story.

For a while Flint experienced a kind of rebirth. But in time this wave flattened out. That’s life.

Years later the US-American director Michael Moore shot a documentary film about the demise of the General Motors production plant in Flint. Have you ever met him?

Oh yes! I know Michael quite well. We were even friends for a while. But the friendship didn’t last. It took me some time to realize that he was doing a parody about Flint, that he makes fun of the place and its people. Michael is a talented guy! He is very successful with his comedy. But it was quite the opposite of what I wanted! I didn’t want to denounce the status quo rather instigate a positive development from the situation. It was bound to happen. One day our paths parted.

Did you ever get into a fight with him?

Yes, Michael Moore weighs more than I do. But I wasn’t afraid of him. I was faster.

“Everything we experienced thus far was just a taste of what is ahead of us in the coming years and decades.”

In the past you advised fired and rationalized workers. Today, 40 years later, many people are again afraid of being replaced by industry 4.0 and the increasing automation and robotization. Is the phenomenon repeating?

Yes, absolutely! I find it extremely exciting to see the topics coming back due to the technical and technological progress. It is about efficiency enhancement and downsizing the human workforce. People are totally scared of being left without work one day. For many it is a question of survival. But there is a tiny difference to the past.

Which is?

What happened at the end of the 1970s, beginning of the 1980s was just a prelude. Everything we experienced thus far was just a taste of what is ahead of us in the coming years and decades. A storm is approaching, stronger than everything else in the past. Perhaps it will also grow into a hurricane. And I have to admit: Despite my age – I will probably not live to see the hurricane – I sense a feeling of turmoil and negative excitement.

What exactly makes you so pessimistic?

Where should I start? How much time do you have? Just think about the electric cars we are about to produce, which can not only construct themselves but hardly need any maintenance and repair due to their technology. On top of that, many of these cars can drive autonomously. And now calculate how many millions of jobs will go lost on the long term through this! That’s just one of many examples. The same goes for the building industry. And the financial services sector. And not least the media industry. Sorry for that!

What to do? New Work?

New Work, that’s it.

The term New Work, which you coined, stipulates that we should only devote one third of our time to normal gainful work in the future. Another third is spent on self-providing and smart consumption. The remaining third, finally, for chosen work, one’s calling…

… for what you really, really want. But New Work is a dynamic concept, times have changed, and along with it what I understand as New Work today.

Which is?

What we meant by self-providing in the 1970s and 1980s was, above all, a new type of farming. That has long since become a reality because more and more people have the desire to produce their own food and clothing themselves. At least it has become a tangible phenomenon. Today, self-providing increasingly means a comprehensive do-it-yourself daily life. Thanks to 3D printing and other refined technologies, we will soon be able to produce the majority of our goods ourselves. The consumer becomes the producer, a so-called “fabber”. I call that high-tech self-providing. And these fabbers will play an important role in the near future. It’s about manufacturing everything we need for a modern, happy life. In any case, the stake of self-providers has increased more strongly than I ever would have dreamt. Isn’t that wonderful?

“Why do you always use the word ‘really’ twice?” “Because I am really, really concerned and want people to take my concern really, really serious.”

In which countries are we speaking of here in particular?

India, China, and some African countries will soon pioneer this development.

In which areas are ideas of New Work already practiced today?

Everywhere. Knowing that there are still many, many jobs in the world, which are unfulfilling and not dignified. Nevertheless, I notice that many employers have become more sensitive in the meanwhile. They have realized that work can make us happy and that employees who identify with their profession are clearly more efficient, reliable, and more self-responsible as well. In many jobs and sectors my plea to do what we really, really want has already become reality. The really, really wanting has become part of business culture. In the 1980s the idea of a profession that you really, really want was abstract and surprisingly difficult to imagine for most people. I am so happy that this has changed.

Why do you always use the word “really” twice?

Because I am really, really concerned and want people to take my concern really, really serious.

“My job is simply fabulous.”

Does your work make you happy?

You mean what I am currently working on? Oh, yes. The job is simply fabulous. Especially in the last months it gave me many moments of happiness. It is exactly what I really, really want.

You are 87 now. Where do you get your energy from?

Incredible, isn’t it? First, I am rarely tired. Secondly, I sit in a wheelchair, which is quite comfortable as my friends drive me everywhere. And thirdly, I can endure much more than people would think.

You are active as a consultant. Who are your clients today?

People, companies, institutions, and various governments – such as India and South Africa. The consulting essentially focuses on taking the future serious. A serious concern but without scaring people. When Frithjof is asked, he says: Everything, just don’t be afraid!

What are you working on right now?

Two things. First, I am campaigning for a decrease in wage labor because wage labor is a boring, tiring, and exhausting activity that wears down a person on the long run. I can discern a certain success as classic wage labor is systematically reduced. And secondly, I am committed to finding more and more supporters for the idea of New Work around the world. I am busy establishing so-called “Centers for New Work”. We opened the first of its kind in Mumbai. I must admit I was afraid…

“Everything, just don’t be afraid!”

Of what?

Of Gandhi. I was worried that Gandhi’s doctrine – his concept of a self-sufficient, peasant economic system – would thwart our plans. But the opposite happened. Gandhi helped us a lot.

What goes on in these centers?

Exactly that! New Work only makes sense where people come together and exchange about their fears, wishes, and desires. There is no evolution without mutual support.

Where will the next centers open?

Also in India and in South Africa. In this country I tried especially hard to implement New Work. Now my efforts start to bear fruit. 

“When, if not now?”

You mentioned togetherness. New Work is not least a call for a cooperating, networking society. But at the moment the world is experiencing a step backwards to old times and nationalisms we thought were long overcome. Does the shift to the right represent a danger for New Work?

What I observe in the world right now is a great danger – for all innovative thought and life models. The global shift to the right causes me great discomfort. That’s why it is more important today than ever to be committed to New Work. When, if not now?

Do you have a wish for society, economy, politics?

Isn’t that obvious? I wish we would take the opportunity to draft a completely new culture, which is incomparably more cheerful, intelligent, and sustainable than everything we have had before. I wish economy and politics had the right amount of courage and energy for us to be able to take on the related risks.

That completely opposes the values of global economy. So when should this happen?

Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. It will come at a rampant speed!

Do you have an idea which question I kept for the end?

I don’t have the slightest idea. 

“Now is that egoistic enough?”

What is it that you really, really want?

Oh, that’s relatively simple! I want to spread the idea of New Work around the globe. And I dream of a culture in which everything possible is done, from childhood on, to strengthen and encourage people.

40 years ago, when you asked the factory workers in Flint what they really, really want, you wanted to learn about their deepest, innermost, egocentric desires. That’s what I am doing right now. So again, what is it that you, Frithjof Bergmann, really, really want?

Okay then. I want to live in Austria again. I love this country. And I would be grateful if I was granted the opportunity to work in Austria. Now is that egoistic enough?

Frithjof Bergmann (87) studied philosophy in Princeton and had teaching positions at the universities of Stanford, Chicago, and Berkeley. For 40 years he was a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the founder of the New Work Movement. The concept involves a new way of working for contemporary society in the globalized and digital age. The theses he drew up in the 1980s are built upon the assumption that the previous systems of work are outdated. As humankind undergoes a transformation from an industrial to a knowledge society, this profound shift of values urges the work world to dissolve classic structures of “old work” – wage labor, rigid hierarchies, and strict divisions of labor – and replace them with more flexible notions of work. According to New Work, wage labor should be reduced to a third, another third allotted to self-providing and smart consumption, and the last third to one’s own personal calling. Industry 4.0, autonomous vehicles, and developments in the realm of artificial intelligence increasingly confront people in the “old work world” with the question of what they want to do in the future.