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The Future of Work-driven Society

When less and less time needs to be spent working for a living in Western industrial countries, this partial freedom of gainful occupation is increasingly becoming a problem for those dismissed. The vision of working less and living longer is a utopia that is also realistic.

Sociological Interpretations in the Perspective of Contemporary History

By Dieter Sauer

[Dr. Dieter Sauer is a professor of sociology in Jena and a member of the board of directors of the Institute for Sociological Research. This essay is translated from the German in: Viertaljahrschefte fur Zeitgeschichte 55/ April 2007.]

[Hannah Arendt's thesis about a "society of laborers without labor," formulated fifty years ago seems more up to date than ever. Her afterthought "nothing could be worse" also seems to be coming true. At a time when it seems realistic for Western industrialized countries that less and less time will have to be spent working for a living with simultaneously rising commodity supply, this partial freedom of gainful occupation is increasingly becoming a problem for those dismissed. And those who still have work are confronted with the paradoxical demand that they have to work more instead of less - and also longer and more intensively. In view of rising labor participation however, the end of work-driven society in the sense of a decreasing importance of gainful employment is currently not in sight. The predominant parole "as long as you have a job" indicates a massive crisis of this work-driven society. The question as to the reasons, the quality and the possible consequences of this crisis is at the centre of this article. In this context, a radical change in society is also diagnoses, which however does not signal the end of work-driven society in general. Rather, work itself will change fundamentally.]

The question whether we still have a work society quickly appears with the theme "Future of the Work-driven Society." Wasn't the "end of the work-driven society" constantly emphasized? Many will recall Hannah Arendt whose 100th birthday was celebrated this year and who warned of a work-driven society in her 1958 book "Vita Activa." Others will recall the debates around the "crisis of the work society" in the 1980s and the 1982 meeting of sociologists in Bamberg under this title.

Why is "the future of the work-driven society" without a question-mark in our title? Speaking about the future and the whole "society" may appear rather daring for a serious sociologist. In the past, this was different. Offering predictions about future developments was almost self-evident when I worked as a student in a research project at the beginning of the 1970s. At that time, we analyzed the effects of technology and rationalization on the work of employees in the German postal service and came to detailed conclusions in the short-, medium- and long-term perspective. In the 1980s, forecasts on the particular development of work were also very common. This was the time of future debates. The development of technology and work seemed to move in somewhat stable corridors. In the 1970s under the label Taylorist production methods, the prospects for industrial work - central at that time - were rather negative. The pendulum swung in a rather positive direction in the 1980s, in the time of creative technological euphoria and reorganized labor organization.

At the beginning of the 1990s, clear statements on the future development of work were past. The emphasis was on a "new inscrutability," on ambiguous developments, paradoxes, ambivalences and heterogeneities. Since then, people have been very reserved with statements about the future of work. This field is populated by the gurus of the business advisor scene with their new management concepts and so-called trend researchers. The whole has the character of fashion. The future itself, particularly social futures, has become a market - not only in the sense of market research intent on discovering new needs and thus new markets for new products. In uncertain times, diagnosis and the need for prognosis increase. There are obviously scholars and scientists who serve this market with commodities. Accordingly, the readiness of sociologists to dare serious social diagnoses and prognoses of the age has not become greater. The sharp edge between objective scientific analysis and daring speculation seems narrower than in earlier times.

The questions at the heart of this essay are: What characterizes the present society as a "work-driven society"? How can this work society change? What historical developmental tendencies can be identified? Where are the possibilities and limits of contemporary diagnoses and future predictions?

The whole thing is a vast field that obviously needs limitations. In my perspective as a labor- and industrial sociologist, these limitations lie in the research fields and in capitalist society. New interest must be directed at the relation to social praxis, not at science in the academic sense.


The theses of the crisis or end of the work-driven society are old and enjoy a boom season again and again. In the sociological debate, they have had a certain renown since the 1982 Bamberg sociologists' day under the motto "Crisis of the Work Society." At that time, the visions of the new information- and communication technologies regarding working hours and employment were stressed. People had not yet grown accustomed to a constantly high unemployment rate. By the middle of the 1980s, the reduction of working hours reached its summit with the 35-hour week. A change of values, the new importance of so-called "post-acquisitive or post-material values," was central. A new leisure culture was involved. The increasing significance of free time and pleasure led to the formulation of an experience- or fun society. As with all other arguments, empirical evidence can be found on changed consumer habits, the entertainment industry, the financial world and the world of beauty. Nevertheless the thesis also recalls somewhat older versions of society like the affluent society of John Kenneth Galbraith ("The Affluent Society," 1958) and Herbert Marcuse's criticism of the one-dimensional society (The One-Dimensional Man," 1964).

As everybody knows, the Bamberg theses on the end of the work society did not last long. However there were also several new editions in view of the changed world economic structure. The widely discussed statements by Jeremy Rifkin ("The End of Work and its Future," 1996), Andre Gorz ("Work Between Misery and Utopia," 2000) and Ulrich Beck ("The Future of Work and Democracy," 2000) that "capitalism will abolish work in the long run" should be mentioned here. From them and other sociologists, there are a series of proposals that abandon the narrowing to "paid work" and expand the theme to other forms of work, to personal work, social work or citizen work as Beck proposed. In the meantime, the discussion has died down since these concepts have proven unfeasible or at least unacceptable.

At that time and today, the counter-thesis "no end of the work society" has the better arguments and the empirical evidence on its side in my view. In the first 2005 volume on Germany's socioeconomic development titled "Work and Life" ("Arbeits- und Lebensweisen"), we read: "Germany remains a work society. For the great majority of the population, paid work is the activity that defines their lifestyle and decides over their social security. Demographic trends, changed lifestyles and overall economic underemployment have not essentially altered this. The number of working persons in West Germany has increased absolutely and relatively in the long-term while the number of non-working persons has declined slightly. At the beginning of the new century, the working rates (according to the 2002 census) were 80% for men and 64% for women in the West (73% in the East). The desire for paid work is even higher. If the silent reserve is considered, only 10% of men and 18% of West German women or 15% of East German women lack a paid work orientation according to the 2001 socioeconomic panel). A weaker demand appears while the labor market gains significance on the supply side as a central barometer of social participation. Concrete participation in paid work measured in volumes of paid working hours has declined and is socially differentiated."

At the end, long-lasting unemployment was described - rather harmlessly - as worker demand on the labor market. While unemployment grows, the significance of paid work grows as the volume of paid work becomes narrower. Release from paid work in the form of unemployment is socially stigmatized. Many feel robbed of a central form of social identity, social recognition and social networks. They feel excluded and discriminated. This internalization of a social orientation in paid work also appears in studies showing unemployment makes people sick. The number of serious illnesses is higher than the rate of the gainfully employed, around 63 percent with unemployed men and around 37 percent with unemployed women. Long-term unemployed have a 3 or 4 times higher mortality risk and simultaneously often suffer under a whole series of different illnesses (cf. Health report of Technicians Health Insurance, www.tk-online.de).

Thus an end of the work society in the sense of a decreasing significance of paid work is not now manifesting. However the dominant slogan "work is the main thing" is evidence of a massive crisis of this work society. Since this is clearly centered in western work societies and is marked by specific characteristics of German development, it makes sense to first consider the global development since that development sets important conditions both for the causes of the crisis and possible ways out.


If we focus on the current predictions regarding development of the world's population, industrial work and life expectancy, a future scenario appears that increasingly mirrors humanity's dream of working less and living longer. In developed western industrial societies like Germany, this development is usually thematicized in the media and politics as a crisis or catastrophe, a secular curse of having to work less and live longer. This seems paradoxical. Living longer is mainly seen as a cost problem of pension insurance. To the tendency of having to work less, people react with the magic formula of working longer.

Population Development

The threatening scenario of a population explosion with humanity continuing to grow at the present rate does not seem confirmed. According to data of the US, the average number of children has declined within around 50 years from five to 2.8 (in 2003). If an annual growth of 90 million persons worldwide was still discussed in 1990, only 77 million more were added ten years later. In Germany as an example for developed industrial countries, the birthrate in 1971 at 2.1 was below the replacement level. Today it is 1.3. The changed development is even clearer if the countries with a higher population dynamic are considered. These countries are always cited as a cause for the explosion. The average number of children per woman in India has fallen from 5.7 in 1970 to 3.0 in 2000 and in China with a strong birth control from 5.7 to 1.7.

For the first time, a lower world population is expected by 2030 in the low variants of population development projections. The causes include intensely advancing urbanization, a general improvement of medical care and the rapid industrialization of developing countries, first of all in Asia. Black Africa is an exception. Here massive poverty still leads to births of 5-7 children per woman. However the population growth in Africa will be corrected downwards by famines, Aids and civil war. Predictions will be difficult here.

Industrial Production

The fact that the share of industrial production and thus the number of jobs for industrial workers falls more and more in western industrial countries is connected with the advancing industrialization of the world. In the West, capitalism abolishes work. Thus Hannah Arendt, Andre Gorz, Jeremy Rifkin and Ulrich Beck were right with their forecasts. Only worldwide is work increasing. The catch-up process of East Asian economies is particularly remarkable. For the same industrial development that needed over 80 years in Germany and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan only required 35 years. China will even surpass this catch-up speed. Until a brief slump at the beginning of the 1990s, world industrial production has constantly increased. More and more developing countries are becoming industrial countries within a short time. This growth process is not limited to the production of labor-intensive goods like clothing and entertainment electronics. If one considers the significance of recent innovative industries like the electronics industry for example, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are at the top in sales and exports while China is advancing rapidly. The competition fueled by the rationalization dynamic and leading to more and more discharges of workers in western industrial countries intensifies among industrial producers. Even without the strongly advancing rationalization in production, a secular turn in the social need for workers in western industrial countries is already manifest.

The socially necessary time spent with paid work will decline first in the western industrial countries if an intensely growing worldwide industrial production meets a slowly growing or even shriveling world population. The consequence for western industrial countries is already clear: a secular trend of increasing unemployment and the dismantling of welfare state security when it is needed more than ever. In addition, the life expectancy of people in all industrial countries is simultaneously increasing. A different ranking of paid work for every individual results.

Working Hours and Lifetime in Western Industrial Countries

The prognoses on average life expectancy offered by medical experts are impressive. For persons born in 2025, an average life expectancy of 100 years is calculated. The genes for the aging process in persons and animals have been discovered. For animals, possibilities of manipulating age limits have been investigated. As a conservative estimate of aging experts, the average life expectancy in 2150 will be around 125 years with some people living to be 150. If one starts from today, the lifespan of every individual will nearly double.

What does this mean for the time we can, must or will spend with paid work? Concerning physiological ability, medical experts today are rather optimistic. Many long-term studies suggest a compression of sickness- and disability burdens. This means bodily frailty will not increase simultaneous with our lifespan. This dream of humanity, living longer and becoming healthy senior citizens, is being realized slowly but surely in western industrial countries.

What are the consequences for total lifetime working hours? In 2003, employed persons in Germany worked around 2722 hours and on average received pensions after 38 years. Converted to lifetime, this amounts to around 15 percent. With a predicted life expectancy of 100 years, the working hours for a whole life will only claim 12 percent of one's lifetime. With continuous rationalization, the socially necessary working hours of people in the 21st century could even fall to 10 percent of one's lifetime - that is including free time, falling to 15 years working time in a 100 year life. In all probability, this will be enough time to cover needs on a high level in a global economy. Living longer, becoming healthy senior citizens and having the possibility of spending less time in paid work is a very realistic perspective. However the more the realization of this dream of humanity for industrial countries becomes concrete, the more intensely it is described as a social nightmare. Working less and living longer become the problem of the western work society in the 21st century.


The .sketched future scenarios are based on classical extrapolations: the present is simply extended into the future. More critical scenarios start from special calculations on the development of certain indicators, make assumptions about the importance of influences and then come to quantitative conclusions. However these estimates are only more or less likely. This is not the main business of sociologists. Demographic, economic and medical prognoses are involved in these scenarios. Bringing them together and interpreting them is a sociological challenge.

The quality of these trend descriptions and future scenarios depends on the underlying assumptions and the theoretical and historical frameworks, not only on the applied data and the calculations. Such prognoses are usually only flimsy substitutes for the fact that there is no certainty of analysis for the period from the present to the future. We have no analyses of what has not yet happened. Rules based on scientific methods help in analyzing the present as history. Nevertheless they are not "objective"; they are contested. One has to be fight for the interpretation of history. The nearer it comes to the present, the more vigorous will be the struggle. What is called scientific prognosis is usually an extension of the present that is called present plus future. The actions of many people and the interrelations of the future cannot be predicted and calculated. This is true even more for the future of a whole society.

The future of the work-driven society cannot be forecast. Still a diagnostic interpretation of the present ventures a glance at the future. There is a flowing transition between diagnosis and prognosis. "An unavoidable moment of speculation is inherent in every prognosis. This speculation is part of prognosis' character but not its function. An envisioned possible future often tells us more about the present than the future. As Max Weber said, "the future will finally decide over the causal significance of the facts of the present as causes. The transition from rational to speculative calculation is completely flowing since no calculation of unexpected accidents can be objectively certain."

One cannot write about the past as it "really" was, only how we interpret it today. The present determines the "reality" of the future. Therefore prognosis' most sublime function is diagnosis. Like the writing of history, prognosis gives a sociological interpretation to this framework, its focal points and points of reference. Predicting, Antonio Gramsci said, means seeing the present and past in movement. Seeing perceptively means identifying the fundamental and permanent elements of the process. A purely "objective" prediction would be absurd. The future is made and is not a fact extended from the past and present. The potentiality in present conditions includes many variants of the future. Gramsci formulated the challenge of a diagnosis very correctly: "finding the real identity amid apparent differentiation and diversity amid apparent identity is the essential challenge of the historian of social development."


What seems a worldwide possibility of liberation from necessary work is seen and discussed among us as a social scandal of unemployment. Since the middle of the 1970s, higher unemployment rates are documented in western industrial countries, particularly in Europe - despite all economic ups and down and despite all differences. This is a secular trend.

Let us now look more closely at Germany's postwar history. In the middle of the 1970s, Germany seemed at the zenith of its history. The years of the economic miracle, the so-called golden decades, lie behind when economic growth went hand in hand with social welfare progress strengthened by changes in habits and consumption. In the "Suddeutschen Zeitung," this was recently described with faint irony and melancholy as follows: "Capital and labor, the individual and society, were joined together by a value system called the social market economy. [... ] Everyone fared well including entrepreneurs though business profits were not especially high because the growth was stable, the future could be planned and life in families was orderly." At that time we had a small unemployment problem that seemed solved with the help of Keynes and his methods of state economic policy. While that functioned, the solutions were not of long duration.

The middle of the 1970s could be described in retrospect as a turning point. In prognoses, an "upheaval in socioeconomic development is emphasized." The "perpetual prosperity" has turned out to be a "short dream." Since that time, capitalism in its centers has entered a new phase of development. Eric Hobsbawm described the last quarter of the 20th century as a "landslide" that has not stopped today. (Eric Hobsbawm, "The Age of the Extreme," 1995). Since then, the "crisis of the Fordist production- and social model" - the imminent end of that institutional arrangement - still influences discussion today on labor- and industrial sociology. In Germany and Europe, this Fordist model involved a vigorous connection of industrial mass production and mass consumption, socially-protected normal working conditions for men, gender-specific division of labor in the normal family, low share of working women, compromise-oriented working conditions and a developed welfare state.

Since the 1970s in the sociological research on work, the crucial metaphor has been "crisis" and the end - the crisis of wage incentives and the end of division of labor. Something new emerged: a new type of rationalization, new production concepts and new paradigms. This social upheaval is obviously not marked by the "end of the paid work society." Rather the upheavals are manifest in the development of work itself. The historical reference point of this debate is crucial: the conflict with the Taylorist-Fordist organization of work (centralized planning, hierarchy, rigid division of labor, performance wages and restrictive work). In labor research, a conflict rages over how far the manifest changes in the development of work reflect a profound upheaval or can only be interpreted in continuities. This was a conflict between quantitatively- and qualitatively-oriented social researchers. The upheaval did not yet occur in the data of the quantitative researchers. The new "disappeared in the average." The empirical evidence was often limited to spectacular examples from particular branches and groups of employees. This conflict is over. With or without upheaval metaphors, the empirical fact of radical changes in the development of labor - in job conditions, organization of work, working hours, qualification demands or wage- and performance conditions - cannot be denied any more.

This upheaval first became very clear in the 1990s. The Iron Curtain fell, capitalism defeated communism and the word "turn" accompanied by many hopes was heard everywhere. These years could be termed a transitional phase. The crisis was fully manifest after its discovery in the 1970s and an incubation time in the 1980s marked by investigations and partial conversion of new strategies.

At the beginning of the 1990s, both concepts of a new division of labor - keywords: flat hierarchies and participatory management - and also concepts of interlocking (mostly on the basis of further developed technologies) gained great acceptance. This was similarly true for the tendency of flexible work. The erosion of normal working conditions and flexible working hours were both discovered and widely debated in the middle of the 1980s and passionately promoted in the 1990s. The so-called mega-trends like globalization, informatization and tertiarization allied with the institutional upheaval of the Fordist production- and social model in a qualitative push. Finally, a change can also be identified on the plane of social legitimation. With the acceptance of a "cultural neoliberalism," political deregulation and restructuring of business and work were legitimated. This resulted from the thesis that no alternatives were possible. Return to the old is discredited ("hardliners" and "obstructionists"). Continuing adjustment to the crisis as inevitable is represented with reform- and innovation metaphors.

A fundamental change in paid work occurs in which economy and society, factory and market, business and workers and work and life refer to each other in a new way - through processes of deregulation. This radical upheaval - that is still underway - as "dissolution of the Fordist work society did not ring in the end of the work-driven society but is manifest in the development of work itself and in the far-reaching processes of its change.


In the 1990s, economic restructuring, operational rationalization models and cultural legitimation patterns condensed in a new pattern of adjustment to the crisis of Fordism whose inner core is a "forced commodification" of the social organization of work. In the "Suddeutschen Zeitung" of July 1, 2006, we read: In the beginning of the 1990s, "the capital side cancelled solidarity and abolished the German consensus. All over the world, only one rule of the game is in force, the market. The board of directors of the Deutsche Bank (who announced the dismissal of 7500 workers) said they had to do what they did. Dismissing workers was in the best interests of their shareholders, their workers and the country. If they realized lower profits than comparable businesses, their business would disappear and all workers would be jobless. Thus they act responsibly when they sacrifice part of the personnel to save the other part. They regard the law of the market as a natural law and no opposition against that law is possible." (Nurnberger, "Die Gier der Patrioten," The Greed of the Patriots).

The market as a general principle of control, organization and allocation has always been one of the central themes of capitalist societies. What is new and characterizes the present development is a new stage of commodification, its radicalization. The market is often only used as a metaphor that means more, namely a radical enforcement of capitalist commodification logic and the competition principle, a far-reaching economization of all social areas. Commodification can be understood as a new relation of market and business and market and organization. While the concrete production processes are screened from the imponderabilities of the market in the perspective of Fordist businesses, new concepts make the market the motor of the permanent reorganization of domestic structures. Thus the market in its contingency and dynamic becomes the structuring moment of the company organization. Conversely, the market itself is instrumentalized and staged in the course of this process. Its vagueness and dynamic are used strategically in this way.

The direct orientation of businesses to sales markets, customers, product specifications and prices occurred in the 1980s in Germany. Alignment to the finance markets, the expectations of investors, their profit margins and the share prices on the stock exchanges first prevailed in the middle of the 1990s. Germany Inc - a peculiar interlocking of the state, banks and businesses took effect that for a long time kept businesses from the influence of international finance- and capital markets - was dissolved. Productive capital has now become the investment object or investment option of global interest-bearing or speculative capital. Thus the production processes in businesses become dependent variables. The difference between the industrial profit dependent on the efficiency of production factors and the profit expectations of investors on the finance markets separated from production factors produces an "excessive" exploitation pressure manifest in the permanent reorganization of businesses.

The resource labor power in production processes as a cost-element also becomes a dependent variable. The more market dependent are the wages, the more incomes become secondary. Profit margin becomes the starting point. One consequence and prerequisite of this reversal is the insecurity of labor power, the breach with Fordist and welfare state regulation. The dismantling of the welfare state and the deregulation of social security systems make working conditions flexible and produce huge reserve armies on the labor markets.

With commodification, a new control moment is implemented in businesses that can be described as "indirect control." With control forms and instruments, the market is translated into abstract figures and becomes the "national condition" of work. What is new in these forms of control is that management "limits" itself to setting the broad framework - for example "headcounts" as a limitation of the total personnel, technical equipment, strategic priorities - and specific goals (sales goals, returns, costs, deadlines). "Do whatever you want but be profitable" is the slogan (cf. Wilfred Gussmann/ Klaus Peters. More Pressure through More Freedom. The New Autonomy of Work and its Paradoxical Consequence, Hamburg 2001).

The tendencies of commodification and economization seize all social areas. The "abstract rule of numbers" extends from business, school and social institutions to the family. This seems to be the central structural characteristic of the present transitional phase. Everything is organized according to the market. Not only in businesses, the market, economic figures and benchmarks referring to the market determine where work remains, where it is reduced and where it is upgraded. Welfare state institutions also adjust their benefits according to market criteria. Economic efficiency criteria gain acceptance in conduct of life and organization of the family.

In the world of work, the standards for a political regulation of work are disappearing. The traditional connection of time and performance breaks apart with result- and market-oriented controls of work. If only the result counts, achievement is separated from labor power. Then working hours are no longer a standard for the measurement and evaluation of work or for regulating conditions of work and performance. An "end-time" performance policy requires employees to make the connection of time and achievement themselves. They must set a standard themselves that opposes a boundless market-oriented performance policy. This creates new conditions for enforcing individual and collective interests and necessitates a new approach in the company and wage-scale regulation of labor.

The loss of standards is also true for basic social values like social justice that decays to justification of social injustice. This can be read in the program debates of social democracy in the last years and in the SZ article (cf. Nurnberger, Die Greed of the Patriots). The law of the market "knows no common third party, public interest obligation, social obligation of property or priority of labor before capital. (... ) The values anchored in the constitution are not treasured as painfully gained cultural achievements but hindrances to competition standing in the way of growth of profits and therefore to be annulled."


In the new indirect controls on labor, individual labor power is directly confronted with the growing dynamic of market- and customer demands. Self-organization, result-orientation and flexible working hours dismantle the past institutional buffer between the individual and the market. A new autonomy in work is the vital prerequisite for mastering contingent and variable demands. Increases in productivity and profits can only be reached when businesses fulfill classic demands for more employee independence. These results cannot be attained through a mere "pseudo-independence" or constant propagation of neoliberal ideas. Bureaucratic structures must be dismantled.

The new autonomy should be distinguished from old forms of autonomy in work. If possibilities for action and decision were stressed in the past, the immediate confrontation with the framing conditions of actions is underlined today. The principle of business organization itself changed, not only the forms of business organization. Indirect control is increasingly important. Indirect control is "a form of foreign determination of action that converts the self-determination or autonomy of individuals and can forego explicit and implicit instructions and the threat of sanctions."

The basic idea of indirect control is "importing" the form of dependence in which the free entrepreneur faces his framing conditions in controlling dependent employees. The dependent employee adopts entrepreneurial functions and falls into a contradictory relation to himself. His interest in the development of his individuality comes in conflict with his entrepreneurial interest in company-defined success. The goal of this new business control is to bring individuals to mobilize all resources for the goal of exploitation. On one hand, this involves using all potentially exploitable subjective qualities of living labor and on the other developing and unfolding this work asset that should be transformed and turned into achievement. Indirect control brings individuals into a situation where they adopt the perspective of the business and change their own powers and social relations into "resources" of business success. Individualization, an earlier diagnosis referring to the private life world and private lifestyles, returns in the economy. A forced individualization of working- and employment conditions occurs in the core areas of the economy and labor.

The thesis of the subjectivization of labor reflects this contradictory process. It says on one hand that subjective potentials and resources are demanded and confiscated in an expanded way by the enterprise. On the other hand, it also refers to the claims of individuals for more chances of development, more participation possibilities and more quality experience in the world of work. Development and endangerment, expanded self-determination and internalized self-control are near each other as two sides of present restructuring. Work penetrates life as life penetrates work. The borders between organized paid work and private life based on the home and family are blurred. Commercialization and individualization obviously no longer occur today in separated spheres. Both occur in the life world and the world of work.

To politically evaluate these processes of change, the dialectic of submission and liberation immanent in these processes must be defined more exactly. Encrusted institutional (rule-) structures break apart. New spaces of freedom for individuals become real, functional elements of a new economy and are not only ideological promises. This release is simultaneously allied with new security and new subordination of individual conduct under the imperative of an abstract (global) capitalist economy. The processes are more contradictory than they may appear. The inertia of social and private areas of life resists "colonization." New creative freedoms break out in the remnants of "past" bureaucratic forms of rule. The times of a simple political assessment are past. The positive and negative of development can not be simply separated any more. Economization fails in honoring the neoclassical promises of freedom.

The totalization of the economy points to a new quality of the economy (for example, to the difference between industrial profit and yields on finance markets and the released dynamic of "boundlessness") and to the dissolution of the borders between the economy and other social areas. Economization relies on utilizing subjective potentials of human labor and on the new independence and autonomy of employees. Economization depends on their development and simultaneously confiscates this potential. The risk of destroying this potential always exists. Therefore the individual must increasingly endure the contradictions of economization. This can lead to drastic monopolization or powerlessness. Still political insights can arise.


Commodification and subjectivization leave marks. The upheaval produces a conflicting inscrutable "land map" of work. Very different consequences are experienced in individual branches and by particular groups of employees. Thus tendencies of a commodification are accepted much more quickly and strongly in decentralized, customer-oriented service areas than in complex areas of production that are most concentrated. Self-organized subjectivized work is found more with the highly qualified while standardized work still prevails with the less qualified. Flexibility of working hours and employment affect women differently than men.

Flexible forms of paid work occur with modern wage-earners working on call or as contract workers, new independent workers and successful founders of new enterprises. The lines of division in personnel are partly the old lines but are becoming deeper and more unstable. The arising flexible jobs segment is very heterogeneous. Different forms of paid work - from marginal jobs to independent work - and different qualification and competence profiles with very different working conditions are striking. The relative increase of flexible employees with expanding personnel no longer occurs in the old style of a segmentation in core- and marginal personnel. Flexibility of employment even reaches the former core functions of a business including the qualified and better qualified. The traditional securities of the middle class (from skilled production workers and qualified employees to college graduates) are dissolving.

Flexibility of working hours leads to many working hour models and a clear polarization of men and the more qualified and women and the less qualified. A third group who work be3tween 30 and 40 hours shrivels.

Employees in self-organized forms of work with growing responsibility and greater developmental perspectives face employees in restrictive forms of work. People without work who are socially marginalized coexist with people who "work without end" and whose health is damaged. The increasing coexistence of precarious job conditions and personally responsible jobs with great individual freedoms is also characteristic. Synchronization of work and life is seen as a privilege, especially by youth. Subjective claims and needs are lived out intensively in work and the group of employees using this privilege becomes greater. However the privilege is also a problem. The price for living out high intrinsic work motivation consists in sacrificing lifetime and quality of life. Quality of work is purchases with the loss of quality of life.


We speak of a transitional phase because the present development is marked by instability, heterogeneity, contradictions and conflicts. We seem faced with a transformation process whose essential feature is permanent change or long-term restructuring. This process revolutionizes its newly created presuppositions again and again without steering to a certain goal. However this is not a simple circling movement. The effective contradictions permanently ensure a forward-driving dynamic.

Commercialization breaks the Fordist relations of market and organization, labor power and person and work and life. The limits of exploitation of capitals et in the Fordist production economy are overcome, the technical and organizational foundations revolutionized and the use of labor power released from its institutional and motivational constraints (flexibilization and subjectivization). Competition on the sales markets and the profit expectations of investors are driving forces. These forces constantly put in question the efficiency of production as defined by technical and organizational factors. However finance-driven short-term profit expectations endanger the long-term foundations of businesses. The example of the New Economy crisis demonstrates this.

The tendency of capitalist economy to boundlessness and extravagance negates the natural foundations of the work force and the conditions for its utilization in the work process and the conditions of its reproduction. Existential insecurity and precariousness of work on one side and increasing overstrain through excessively longer working hours and increasing intensification in work on the other side are the visible consequences. Boundless capital exploitation always aims at annulling limits and new intensified use of social productive forces. The contradictory character of the transition results from the fact that there are also new social development potentials with the new quality of individualization and "subjectivization of work" alongside processes of limitation. Their economic utilization speeds up but also seems to oppose that development, i.e. endangering or "endangered development."

Politics comes into play here since the relation of boundlessness and limitation is always determined by the political relative strengths. Beside the immanent economic limits, there are social and moral limits that have to be observed here. Politics means finding social and individual responses to the boundlessness inherent in commodification and individualization in a twofold way: in founding necessary resistance and in defining progressive political approaches in the transitional phase. Setting limits and developing potentials are the crucial demands to politics that cannot be played off against one another.

Progressive moments and destructive moments coincide in the present transitional phase and seem to exclude one another. Understood dialectically, the "intolerability" of such transitions occurs, that is the impossibility of lasting social conditions in these transitions. This contradictoriness is only another expression for the objective dynamic in the situation that goes beyond the present state. The "intolerable" situation of the transition is marked by an intensification of social conflicts whose ending is open. The conflicts over the reorganization (or dismantling) of the welfare state, location- and job security, longer working hours and endangered health intensify along with individual conflicts - for example individualized conflicts over working hours that must increasingly be waged in partnership and families or as discussions around developing and safeguarding one's work capacity.

An increasing potential conflict arises among employees who are already battling a series of other conflicts. On one hand, there is resistance and protest against an increasing existential insecurity of the unemployed, those threatened by unemployment, precarious employees and the growing group of those who cannot pay for their livelihood any more. Considerable resistance is striking in other countries. In her book "Forces of Labor" (2005) analyzing the connection of the working class movement and globalization, Beverly Silver coined the term "labor unrest" for work- or worker unrest extending beyond the organized working class movement. On the other hand, greater resistance against an increasing overstrain in work from excessively longer working hours and increased intensification of work is also clear. The campaign "Working without End - My Time is My Life" of IG Metal (German metal workers union) initiated by highly trained employees of IBM is one example. Conflict arose with these employees since the promised meaning in work was fulfilled less and less. A new employee consciousness took hold that must not be confused with the traditional instrumental worker consciousness where meaning is sought beyond work. Here work and quality of life in work are emphasized.

The future of work is still an open project. The diagnosis sketched here - and for sociology generally - does not claim to be valid for all possible social futures. Still the possible options manifest in the dissolution of the old Fordist work society should be evaluated.

"The future lies in the past." The way back to old relations is urged by many, particularly those who want back or want to retain the securities of the old social welfare state. This is an unrealistic perspective given the dynamic of the current upheaval process. However our diagnosis also shows that defending social achievements is justified. This is not the same as returning to Fordist conditions. The old conditions can hardly come back, above all the old hierarchical and bureaucratic organizational structures or the old restrictive forms of work.

Another option lies in a far-reaching subjectivization of work and a more intensive search for meaning in work. With the dissolution of bureaucratic rule, businesses emphasize the new independence of dependent employees in the business, the opposite of hierarchy and subordination. This is the weak spot, the Achilles heel of the new forms of controlling work. The individual employee takes seriously the demand of entrepreneurial conduct and experiences the capitalist entrepreneurial function as a fetter for developing his individuality. This can lead to the insight that rule determines his relation to himself. This discovery could be a first step in the liberation of the individual in thinking, a prerequisite for political conduct.

Finally, a third option should be mentioned that exists in all dreams of humanity of less work: working less and living longer. "At the end, work becomes scarce," I read on a placard at a recent demonstration. In this simple slogan, the whole absurdity of the capitalist organization of work is clear when one considers what is involved in less and less time: the surplus in food for the preservation and good survival of all humanity. But the slogan also shows how hard this is in our minds and how we are influenced by the mechanisms of a capitalist work society. Intensifying the problem of increasingly scarce work with overtime work is generally accepted now. But what may sound right for the individual business will prove ruinous for society.

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