We are currently experiencing a breathtaking change in our working world. The term is interpreted completely differently today than it was a generation or two ago. Both the purpose of the work, the content and design of work and framework conditions are experiencing an incredible upheaval and the question increasingly arises as to where all this will lead us. Karl Marx is credited with saying that labor is a commodity that its owner, the wage earner, sells to capital in order to live.
Inevitably, images of factories come up in us, in which thousands of wage workers do their work with the help of machines. Sometimes six days a week with ten hours a day each, without earning enough to make enough for the family to live. This is certainly a thing of the past in Europe. Today we only know such scenes from reports on textile factories in Bangladesh or from descriptions in museums, such as the Textile Museum in Augsburg for example.
Nowadays, work is less and less understood as pure wage earnings. Generation Z in particular (born between 1995 and 2009) understands work as part of their own identity and sees its importance far beyond the mere securing of existence. They “attach great importance to being perceived as individuals with their own needs and not as a ‘living machine’… in addition, it is particularly important to them to pursue a meaningful and fulfilling activity.” (Tiba, 2021). This certainly has to do with the content of the work, which is less and less a manual routine, but increasingly interesting co-creative knowledge work.
The latter meets the three basic needs of people according to the self-determination theory of psychologists Ryan and Deci (2018), namely autonomy, competence and social inclusion. Autonomy refers to the need of people to be able to choose for themselves what they do, when and how, and to be given a sufficiently large scope for design in order to then play off and further develop their own competence. Ideally, this happens together with other people. Satisfying these three basic needs is directly related to effective behavior and mental health, and is becoming a requirement for attracting and retaining top performers. It fits well into the picture when increasing digitization and automation of routine tasks makes it possible to focus on what we “really, really want” (Bergmann, 2004).
Ultimately, however, the framework conditions must also fit. And here the devil is often in the details. This raises the question of how the understanding of modern work outlined above, often subsumed under the term “New Work”, should match up with hierarchical organizational forms and an outdated understanding of leadership in many companies. This often ends up as “business theatre” (Vollmer, 2016). Modern network organizations, e.g. based on cell structure design (Pfläging and Hermann, 2020) are still a long way off. The resistance is too great, especially among the executives, whose role changes the most and who fear above all a loss of power (Väth, 2016). There would be enough for them to do, e.g. as moderators, mentors or networkers. For example, Boltanski and Chiapello (2018) paint a picture of a project society in which people come together again and again in projects to work on interesting tasks. After the end of the cooperation, they then tackle new tasks in a changed constellation. In order to make this networking possible, a specific role is needed, namely the networker, a novel task for managers, with high demands and opportunities.
Where will this development lead us? Will we run out of work, as some studies and authors predict (including Susskind, 2020)? Certainly not. As has been the case since the beginning of mankind, the framework conditions and requirements for work will continue to change. With digitization, automation, artificial intelligence and modern information and communication technologies, new possibilities are being created that enable more self-determined work that is more independent of organizations. A lifetime of employment with one and the same company becomes the exception, the independent, project-based completion of work from home, the norm. This will also change the distribution of time spent on work or family, leisure and personal development. Rutger Bregman (2020) even sees the time has come for the 15-hour week and the unconditional basic income. The idea behind this is that all people from birth regularly receive as much money from the state as they need to live throughout their lives. Almost as a fundamental right and without them having to do anything about it.
This would also make it possible to overcome the dilemma created by technological development in a society, namely the risk of discriminating against population groups that can no longer keep up with constantly increasing skill requirements. As tempting as a self-determined working life may sound, the experience gained during the pandemic has taught us the added value of personal interaction in the company compared to working from home. So it is certainly not surprising that ‘Generation Z’ associates the two topics of flexibility and work-life balance with the concept of “New Work” most strongly in addition to digitization and the vast majority want more flexibility in terms of work location and time. Interestingly, however, 2/3 of the respondents in our study reject the mixing of work and leisure (Tiba, 2021). It remains to be seen how the ‘Generation Alpha’ sees this.
Author: Reinhard Wagner, Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung
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