New Work, New Culture: Separating Job and Work

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If Western civilization learned anything in the 20th century, it’s that communism doesn’t always go as planned. While communism and its correlating political theories can get complicated, it essentially boils down to this: “a stateless, classless and moneyless society, structured upon common ownership of the means of production.” While a communal society can sound appealing, the reality is that inevitably “some animals are more equal than others,” as Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrates. However, there is one philosopher with a vision for a society in which community production is a central feature of communal living, and all citizens spend most of their time on meaningful work rather than at a job.

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Frithjof Bergmann is the founder of the Center for New Work in Flint, Michigan. A professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan, he taught courses in existentialism,  Continental philosophy, and remains a highly regarded Nietzsche scholar. His seminal work On Being Free was published in 1977 by the University of Notre Dame Press:

“Rejecting the standard views of freedom as an external ideal that progressively removes obstacles or as an irrational, unencumbered act that rejects all order, Bergmann argues that the primary prerequisite of freedom is a self possessed of something that wants to be acted out.”

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Bergmann’s philosophy employs the idea that work and job have two fundamentally different meanings. Work, in his view, is something that a person is driven to do, something that gives their life strength and meaning, as in “life’s work”. A job, on the other hand, is a task one performs in exchange for capital with which to purchase food, clothing, and shelter. He proposes that jobs and work be divided radically in the New Work culture: Ten hours devoted to Community Production, which would provide the necessary local production of food, housing, energy, and other accoutrements for modern living; ten hours spent working for a new enterprise that utilizes technology and automation in a way that benefits the worker (rather than the employer); and the remainder of time pursuing New Work, seeking out that which they deeply and seriously want to do, that gives their life purpose and meaning.

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New Work looks different for everyone, since every individual has their own passion project and a particular set of skills and interests. But the commonality Bergmann has found is that when given the time and choice, most people opt to perform work that is of benefit to the community at large:

“We have found that the vast majority of people, when they have the time and space to figure out what they really, seriously want, want to do something meaningful, something that helps other people, something that makes the world better in some way.”

All this will take place within New Work New Culture communities, self-sustaining units that hope to emerge as epicenters for advanced culture and social progress. Read more about the “how” of New Work communities, it’s actually a quite fascinating proposal.

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So what can we learn from Bergmann without moving into a hippie commune ourselves?

Bergmann’s distinction between job and work is particularly important for those who aren’t pursuing their dream job. So often, we define ourselves by our occupation. (Although recent studies suggest we’re moving away from that.) When introduced at a dinner party, people ask “What is your name?” then, “What do you do?” Americans tend to define success more by job titles, and less so by the passion project someone may be pursuing in the moonlighting hours.

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By drawing a distinct line between those pursuits which define us and those tasks which pay our bills, Bergmann’s philosophy makes room for those who are only marginally enjoying their job, or suffering through for the sake of their family. Not everyone is living their dream, and by characterizing a job and a life’s work separately, the New Work movement makes an important separation between how the working world categorizes us, and how we view ourselves.

New Work’s radical idea of only working ten hours per week makes the average 47-hour workweek look positively medieval. But imagine if you had to perform your job with only two hours per day to work. Could you compress your day into a two-hour sprint? What about three? Examine your to-do list and consider what is actually essential. Now imagine if you had the rest of the day to pursue whatever you wanted. Would you create a painting, learn an instrument, study a language, or write a novel? You may not be living in the New Culture, but what is stopping you from pursuing an interest outside of work?

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Studies show that pursuing an interest like a musical instrument can slow signs of aging, keep your mind sharp, and even prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s. Spending free time on a hobby you love makes you inherently more productive at work, and improves your overall perception of well-being. New Work’s emphasis on personal development and self-actualization is grounded in facts, so engage yourself with a passion project.

You may not live in a New Work New Culture compound, but these fundamental shifts in thought patterns and perception of self can have a huge impact on what happens at your desk tomorrow!

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