What does a life in freedom look like?

Frithjof Bergmann coined the term “new work” like no other. Companies, teachers’ associations and young people asked him for advice. The philosopher died on Whit Monday at the age of 90.

Frithjof Bergmann in June 2017

Frithjof Bergmann recognized earlier than others where the world of work could and should develop. When he was already lecturing on “New Work” at Stanford University, the generation of founders at Google were still students. Later they took up approaches of the philosopher and with the help of his ideas created the largest corporation in the world, in which one also felt comfortable. Because the top of the group allowed them to sometimes do things during their working hours that were not directly related to productivity and that they enjoyed.

Conversations with Bergmann, who was born in 1930 in what is now Saxony-Anhalt, grew up in Austria and became a sought-after work philosopher in the United States, contained a formula that kept coming up: “Has that become clear? It’s about something they really, really want, ”he repeated half a dozen times when the FAZ interviewed him to clarify whether today’s form of“ New Work ”corresponded to his actual intention. “The expression ‘new work’ is touted in many companies today. But it’s not about ‘wanting’, ”he said.

When it comes to digitization, many companies rely on freedom and creative teamwork. Design Thinking or Scrum are methods in which you leave out the environment for a while in order to develop new ideas. This new philosophy has also brought about a new form of workplace: with comfortable sofas, with healthy snacks at all times and with the foosball table to let off steam. But that’s not what Bergmann meant by new work.

“The world we want to live in”

His idea found acceptance in the auto industry in the 1970s. At that time the crisis of the North American manufacturers intensified. General Motors looked for ways out and took advice from Bergmann. “At General Motors they tried to turn the ‘New Work’ into something that was almost militarily organized. What we had in mind was more linked to the concepts of improvisation, invention, innovation, ”he said in our interview.

He had come to his topic because he was taking part in a competition as a young adult. In an essay at the end of the 1940s he described “the world we want to live in”. His statements convinced the jury, he won a year of study on the American west coast. After doing a variety of jobs, he studied philosophy at Princeton and received teaching positions at the best universities in the United States. Since the late 1950s he taught his subject at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. General Motors had its production facility not far from the campus.

In his books, Bergmann asked fundamental questions about the world of work: Is the wage labor system fit for the future? What does a life in freedom look like? How can a more humane future be designed? Companies, teachers’ associations, young people and business institutions asked Bergmann for advice – and did not always get the most obvious answers. Mistakes, he said in our conversation, should downright be made the focus of considerations. “That you really want to make mistakes. That you want to have mistakes because they are necessary to achieve certain goals, ”he said. Bergmann died on Whit Monday at the age of 90.