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New Work

Undoing the alienation of the last few millennia

By Jen Stern

, |

New Work

Undoing the alienation of the last few millennia

By Jen Stern

, |

7 min read

Most of us work because we have to, not because we want to. But New Work, as defined by Frithjof Bergmann, is work that we do because we want to – because it enriches our lives, not just our bank balances. Until recently, it’s only been artists, hippies and new-age hunter-gatherers who have managed to step off the conspicuous consumption–conspicuous busyness roller coaster, and just live. But, with new technology and an open mind, this option is open to more of us. Maybe it will, one day soon, become the new normal.

How we got to where we are

We got to where we are through a series of ‘revolutions’ – most notably the agricultural and the industrial. The Agricultural Revolution, which most of us believe was a good thing, enabled a certain level of security – but with that came the ability to create wealth, and thereby to instil the concept of inequality. We were hooked on the idea that greater innovation would create a better standard of living, and more leisure, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we stepped so far away from – to use a somewhat loaded term – the means of production, that we brought up generations of children who don’t know what kind of trees eggs grow on.

It started with the harnessing of steam in the late 18th century, which inspired Karl Marx to predict that the consequent alienation of workers from the means of production would lead to revolution and – ultimately – the end of capitalism. Well, he was only partly right, and it was only with Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line in 1913 that workers became truly alienated.

The production line

Ford’s masterpiece of efficiency catapulted the world into a frenzy of growth, inflation and consumption, and spawned a new form of proletarians who were incapable of actually producing anything on their own. Until that auspicious date, any one of the workers in most factories could – given the tools and raw materials – manufacture the finished product. But production line workers rapidly evolved into automatons who (that?) could do only one small action – for example, fastening five bolts, welding a seam, or assembling two sides of a widget.

The work-earn-spend-work roller coaster

So the production line is a great analogy for the constrained lives of work, earn, spend and work that has led to almost mass burn-out over the last few decades, and the almost universal hatred of Mondays.

A classic illustration of the insanity of the way we work is well summed up in the oft-quoted story of a successful businessman trying to persuade a happy subsistence fisherman to work harder to increase his production so that, after a lifetime of hard labour, he can retire comfortably. The fisherman then asks him what he should do when he finally retires, and the businessman says: ‘Relax here on the beach like I am, and do some fishing.’

Even the Agricultural Revolution was not without its drawbacks; contrary to what many people believe today, it created more work, not less. It’s telling that possibly the last remaining free people on earth – the Bushmen – when asked why they did not plant crops, replied: ‘Why should we, when the world is full of mongongo nuts?’ In the same publication, Richard Lee stated that the !Kung Bushmen spent, on average, 20 hours a week working – and that included what we would today call ‘housework’, i.e. cooking, etc. They were the original affluent society, spending a large part of their days chilling, playing with their kids, making music, painting and swapping stories around a campfire.

It sounds idyllic, but it’s not realistic for most of us to actually produce, hunt or gather our own food, build our own homes, and make our own clothes, and few people would deny that we are better off with many of the technical advances of the last few millennia. But not all of them. (I, for one, believe we could do without nuclear weapons, plastic drinking straws, margarine and Barbie dolls.) So we continued to experiment, invent and expand. But it is possible to undo some of the alienation we’ve almost come to accept as normal – and that’s where Frithjof Bergmann, with his concept of New Work, comes in.

It was after spending some time in the Eastern Bloc and juggling the contradictory and – to him – equally irrational concepts of communism and capitalism that Bergmann came up with the idea of New Work.

New Work vs old work

Automation and/or mechanisation are not necessarily bad – it pretty much depends on how they are implemented, and what the alternatives are. When a dull, dreary, mindlessly repetitive job, like attaching the same bolt to the same piece of metal 73.5 times a minute, is done by a machine rather than a person, that’s a good thing. But it’s a tragedy when a skilled artisan who can turn something on a lathe, plaster a wall, make a pot or weld a beautiful wrought-iron gate is replaced by a machine.

And even work that requires a relatively low level of skill may be better done by humans than machines, for more than one reason: it often results in a better job; it creates employment; it almost certainly uses less fossil fuel and/or electricity; and it’s often cheaper in the long run. Take, for example, something I witnessed the other day.

I regularly walk or drive past the Westlake River where it flows under the Main Road, and I am saddened by the fact that it is choked with vegetation and litter. I know this river flows into Zandvlei, and I have tried to paddle into it, but it’s impossible to do so because it is so eutrophic. And I’ve strolled through the sadly very degraded wetland adjacent to it, but I didn’t feel really safe there, as there are very few other people about.

Now clearly, the eutrophication is a problem so, once or twice a year, the Council sends in a heavy-duty excavator to clear the river, which it was doing last week. Get this – the excavator is transported to the site by a truck (I guess it must be, I haven’t seen that bit), and then one worker spends a few days clearing the vegetation, and then the whole lot is taken away again. The river is clear for a while, until the litter returns and the vegetation grows back and chokes it. (I am not even going to speculate on the effect of the excavator on birds, nests and other creatures.)

That’s old work. The New Work way of dealing with this would be to employ three or four previously unemployed people who live close by to ‘take ownership’ of the river and its immediate environs. They would need to be trained to recognise which plants should be cleared, trained in how to prevent injury to birds and other animals, and – of course – trained in water safety. And then they could patrol the area regularly, collect litter and clear away (and even compost) invasive vegetation. I could be wrong, but I suspect that their guaranteed presence would encourage locals to walk and run there more often, which would have a knock-on effect, and the fact that the river would be clear all the way to the vlei would encourage paddlers and suppers – a virtuous cycle that would just feed on itself. This could quite rapidly become work with purpose – work that people could really enjoy. When I photographed the excavator, the driver was friendly enough, returning my casual wave, but – while he didn’t seem particularly unhappy – he certainly didn’t look particularly happy. In fact, he looked lonely.

Image credit: Jen Stern

New Work and unemployment

Probably the most important aspect of Bergmann’s whole thesis is his six months – six months suggestion. In the early 1980s, when Bergmann started the Center for New Work, he suggested to General Motors, who were automating much of their production process, that, rather than lay off half their workforce, they decrease their work time by half, but continue to pay them. This way, people could work at a job for money for six months, and then spend six months gardening, travelling, writing the ‘great American novel’ or caring for their children. It would require a rethink of our relationship with our workforce, and with the concept of work. You can’t deny that it seems ridiculous that there are unemployed people who can’t find work, while there are others who are compelled to work outrageously long hours to keep their jobs, and never seem to find time to spend with family and friends. Like many things, the solution is actually quite simple, but it’s not easy. It requires a profound change of attitude.

Making New Work work

The concept of New Work is not just for manual labour. In fact, the concept is even more relevant for professional people who really do need to be invested in their work if they are to produce their best. So, whether you are an employee, an employer or both, the principles of New Work can enrich your working life and, by extension, every other aspect of your life.

The six months – six months plan would be tricky to implement as an employee, although job-sharing is taking off. I have a friend who, when she had a child, decided to job-share. She is in sales, so she can – to a certain extent – ‘write her own cheque’, and it wasn’t long before both the sharers were earning what they had when they were both working full time. They split the weeks, the new mum got all the school holidays, and the child-free partner took extensive trips to South America where she volunteered for an animal rescue association. Not as rigid as the six – six, but I’m sure it was what Bergmann had in mind.

As an employer, you have the choice of ‘squeezing as much as you can’ out of each worker, in which case you are likely to have to deal with sick days, days when the worker is so exhausted they can barely concentrate, and – of course – general apathy. Or you can work around the constraints your employees face – the long taxi rides, family responsibilities, and the need to spend time in self-care.

If you want an illustration of how it can work in the real world, check out the incredibly popular series New Amsterdam. Okay, I know it is a TV programme, so it’s not the real world – but is an illustration of the real world. (I do love semantics.)

The love the characters have for their work illustrates better than any academic paper just how the concepts behind New Work can make the world a better place, and Max Goodwin’s stock question of his staff, patients and board members: ‘How can I help?’ might just be the key. So, next time you’re in a board meeting that’s not going smoothly, your production is behind schedule, your staff are grumbling or your customers/residents/clients are complaining, take a New Work leaf out of Max’s book, and ask: ‘How can I help?’ The answer may surprise you, and it may lead you down some unexpectedly productive paths.

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