New work: how the quest for a purpose is reshaping the world of work
In the end, it took a pandemic to turn our work habits on their head from one day to the next. However, the coronavirus outbreak merely accelerated trends that were already happening.
Definition of new work: pioneered by Frithjof Bergmann
“New work” is the new hip buzzword and magic formula. It encompasses a range of principles, and – as the name suggests – they all relate to work and break with conventions. The term was coined in the 1970s by social philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, who was born in what is now Saxony-Anhalt, grew up in Austria and then lived in the US. He recognized that capitalism and its profit-driven mode of production would one day reach its limits against the backdrop of increased technologization.
Bergmann predicted that not only would new work principles be needed, but an entirely new work culture would have to be established once conventional wage labor inevitably sees its demise. New work would be characterized by a new organizational form, freedom, and a sense of purpose. Machines would take care of the unpleasant parts of work. At the same time, work and money would be separated from one another. A person’s job would no longer be the substance of their life.
New normal: what was radical yesterday is common practice today
Digital nomads, working from home, universal basic income – some new work ideals were gaining momentum even before the coronavirus pandemic, but the last two years then catapulted them into the mainstream world of work. The transformation was so quick and profound that it is described as the “new normal”.
New work is so powerful because it captures the mood currently prevailing in nearly all Western cultures. In the 21st century, the criticism of capitalism inherent in the term is identified with post-growth society. In today’s world of work, smartphones and computers mean that people never really clock out, but rather that transitions between work and leisure are fluid. New work is characterized by the desire to now fill this time as meaningfully as possible – both personally and professionally.
Millennials and Gen Z: environment, sustainability, diversity, fairness
Millennials (also known as Generation Y) – the generation of people born between 1980 and 1990 – are currently the biggest drivers of the new work movement. Their priority is to be as in control of their personal life and professional life as possible, without having to compromise on anything. These trends are being amplified by the later Gen Z, which additionally places much greater importance on issues such as the environment, sustainability, diversity, and fairness.
What initially sounds like lofty ideals is actually consistent with the general trend being observed in society. For families in Western cultures, the idea of women staying home and doing the housework while the men go out to work is barely even conceivable nowadays. That alone gives rise to the need for new organizational forms to meaningfully and positively balance family and professional life. However, new work also deals with the fundamental question of how work should be organized in an environmentally compatible and fair way.
Important new work principles
Employees are increasingly expecting jobs to have a purpose. This expectation is in disaccord with assembly line work, the iconic work form of industrialization. New work entails a purpose-driven way of working that also ultimately leads to a purposeful product.
An important aspect of new work – and probably also the main aspect that comes to mind when people hear the term – is the detachment of work from the workplace. From one day to the next, the coronavirus pandemic forced companies to establish the infrastructural foundations for employees to stay productive at home. This flexibility is increasingly taking root in offices: concepts are progressively moving away from working at individual desks and shifting toward shared workspaces.
At the same time, work is also becoming more and more flexible in terms of content. Today’s tasks really require employees to be prepared to upskill and be open to new methods. And last but not least, the actual hours of work are becoming increasingly flexible. There are now a multitude of models, whether flextime, full time, short time, or job sharing.
Sustainability, post-growth, and sufficiency instead of efficiency
New work has its origins in a mindset that is critical of capitalism. Sufficiency is a term that is closely linked to the issue of sustainability and denotes degrowth and decommercialization. Sufficiency challenges the idea of efficiency. Instead of constantly working better, faster, and more successfully, there needs to be a point at which the optimal degree of all parameters is reached in harmony with environmental and social resources.
One of the biggest strengths of new work is that potential employees previously excluded from career opportunities are now included thanks to new principles. Admittedly, this trend has its origins in the deeply capitalistic demand for workers. No economy in the world can now do without women. As a result, existing hierarchies are being shaken up, and other previously marginalized groups of people are being allowed to pursue the same career paths that were essentially reserved for white men in former generations. Diversity, social justice, and inclusion are thus important new work principles.
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