Synthesizing Bergmann’s Critique of the Job System with the
Ideas of Karl Jaspers
(Third in a series of articles exploring the ideas of Frithjof Bergmann’s and the New Work
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An Extensive List of Symptoms and Diseases
“The pathology of the Job System as it now presents itself to a sociological physician comprises a fairly extensive list of different symptoms and diseases.” 1Frithjof Bergmann
Most observers of our employment system assess its adequacy in terms of the rate at which it employs people, or, conversely, the rate of unemployment. Bergmann observed first-hand the shattering impact of unemployment left in the wake of automation among auto workers in Flint Michigan. The effect was worsened by a culture that tells us that our jobs are our “omni-value”, such that when our job is lost, our dignity is lost along with it. The irony of automation resides in the unacknowledged contradiction that it implies:
“First we endowed jobs with every value we could find. Life became impossible without them. Having done that, we turned around invented 550 ways to abolish them.”
On the one hand, our culture encourages us to use our jobs to measure our significance. On the other hand, employers everywhere race to get rid of the need for human work by replacing workers with machines and artificial intelligence.
A second problem with the Job System resides in its narrow use of human capabilities: “the vast majority of people employed inside the Job System spend their time on tasks that are far below the level of their capacities and their talents.” The sharply
delimited range of tasks performed at jobs is intrinsic to the Job System and the industrial context within which it developed: since the inception of the Job System, jobs entail the completion of a narrow set of tasks, such that the worker’s talents and skills for all else is
Other problematic aspects of the Job System identified by Bergmann were anticipated by Karl Jaspers. They include the Job System’s tendency to:
• degrade and demean professional work.
• misallocate human energy.
On the Degradation of the Professions
“The essence of the professions is menaced by (the Job System). (When what) can only exist as the outcome of individual initiative is being transformed into collective enterprise…the ideals of the profession fade. Professional persons devote themselves to particular persons, plans, and organizations. The devastation wrought is at its height where the institutions appear to be in perfect technical order whilst the human beings who work them lack air to breathe.” 4Karl Jaspers
The Job System’s tendency to degrade and demean work is not limited to the worn cliché of the factory worker whose job consists of rote repetition of an endlessly identical task. It is also rampant in the professions. When medicine is turned into a for-profit enterprise, for example, and the role of the Physician is subsumed by the Job System, the distinctive value of Physician’s work is undermined. Professional duties that require personal attention and personal involvement are reduced to a specific list of concrete functions that are measured administratively. The pressure to ensure that the Job System translates work into carefully calculated revenue for the employer “desiccates” the professional’s role, rendering it “bureaucratic and close to meaningless”. Bergmann’s critique is consistent with that of Karl Jaspers, who identified this trend in 1931:
“The life of man in a real world is reduced to mere functioning. . .since he has become a mere replaceable cog in a wheelwork regardless of his individuality … (When the professional is reduced) to a mere function, it releases him from the obligation to conform to the traditional standards which of old formed the cement of society.” 5
The erosion of professionalism that began in the early twentieth century was not intended in accordance with a pre-conceived plan: no individual or group dedicated themselves to diminution of the role of Physicians and other professionals. The professional’s situation
was rather contracted by the tendency of the Job System to reduce work to a specific quantifiable set of concrete functions “managed” by an administrative authority. Physicians, like other professionals caught in the Job System, can look to the structures established by the administrative authority – rather than professional ideals and aspirations – to guide them in their performance of their work. The Physician’s role is reduced in a manner commensurate with the “worn cliché of the factory worker”: the Physician finds herself performing a rote set of tasks in a specified period in accordance with the expectations communicated to her by her employer. In a For-Profit managed enterprise, the broad spectrum of attitudes, knowledge, skills, and virtues that historically constituted the Physician’s role are reduced to a kind of “checklist” of measurable, timed tasks that must be performed in a stereotyped fashion. The tendency of the Job System to reduce professional work to a measurable list of tasks demeans work and the capacity of the professional to express herself in her work. Bergmann’s critique of the Job System is strikingly similar to Jasper’s description of the effect of systems that “split up the whole into partial functions”:
“The maintenance of joy in work has become one of the fundamental problems (of modern society) … Wherever people are reduced to the position of those who merely have to perform an allotted task, the problem of the cleavage between a human creature and being a worker plays a decisive part in the individual’s fate … The work of the Physician, teacher, (or) clergyman cannot be rationalized, for here we are concerned with existential life…This joy in work is ruined where the working of the universal order is such as to split up the whole into partial functions, those who perform them being indifferently replaceable. When that happens, the ideal of a whole falls into decay. What had previously demanded the staking of the entire being upon the continuity of constructive achievement has now been degraded to become (irrelevant to the job)…Today the resistance of those who strive for the genuine fulfillment of a professional ideal is … dispersed and impotent and seems to be incessantly on the decline.” 6
No one is indispensable to the Job System. The professional within the Job System has “no more genuine individuality than one pin in a row” because the professional is reduced to a “mere object of general utility.” Those most effectively predestined to such a life, according to Jaspers,
are “persons without any serious desire to be themselves.” 7
On the Misallocation of Human Energy
“Is not this misallocation of people a dreadful, most especially a fearfully wasteful and inefficient characteristic of our current job-arrangement?” 8Frithjof Bergmann
The Job System allocates human energy in accordance with the demands of consumers. If a good or service is desired by enough persons, and if such persons are willing to pay for that good or service, individuals are employed by the Job System to fulfill the demand. There is no independent authority that determines the kinds of work that people will pursue:
The supply of the masses with the necessaries of life is not effected in accordance with a unified plan … No one can arbitrarily decide, in accordance with a preconceived plan, what the masses are to do … Thus, though all work is purposive, there is no purposive economy as a whole.” 9Karl Jaspers
When Bergmann cites the “great numbers of jobs which serve no convincing purpose” he alludes to – but inaccurately characterizes – the problem of misallocation. Although the specific purpose for which certain jobs are dedicated might strike Bergmann and others as lacking in sufficient meaning or significance – Bergmann uses jobs in the fast-food industry as an example – the gratification of desire on a massive scale (such as the desire for hamburgers gratified by the fast-food industry) does constitute a purpose. The problem to which Bergmann points relates to how we should esteem such a purpose. Bergmann objects not to the purposeless of large numbers of jobs but to the Job System’s incapacity to render good judgments about what human endeavor should entail, in general, and the kinds of activity that we should be working at, in particular. Bergmann elaborates on the example of fast food to exemplify this problem:
“What if the (millions of) fast food workers had the chance to perform incomparably more creative and productive work? What could all these fast-food workers invent, manufacture, compose or explore if the system were different? … Would it not be a cheering relief, if the one and best-known contribution of America to the culture of the world were something other than a hamburger with ketchup on the side?”10
Work to produce a hamburger has a purpose: to satisfy consumer demand for hamburgers. Jobs are created to fulfill the demand for hamburgers because masses of people desire hamburgers, and because the desire for hamburgers is stimulated by organizations that employ people to sell hamburgers at a profit. While Bergmann may bemoan the fact that people whose jobs cater to the desire for hamburgers are not given “the chance to perform incomparably more creative and productive work”, a more sensible allocation of human energies is difficult to envision in an economy and culture where the capacity to immediately gratify desire is so highly valued. The fact that our culture places such a high value on these products is easily demonstrated: large sums of money are spent by masses of people willing to pay for hamburgers produced by the Job System. While an infinite number of work projects may impress us as more valuable than the production of fast food, it is difficult to mobilize consumer demand for such work. Projects that entail work that desperately needs to be done may not stimulate demand for goods or services easily marketed to massive numbers of people. Purposes typically not encompassed by consumer demand – including not only projects that address existential threats but projects that pursue a whole range of collectively beneficial purposes – are relatively unfunded and are to this extent relatively unable to employ people. 11
In essence, the problem is not that we have “great numbers of jobs which serve no convincing purpose” but rather that the purpose of our work is often not consistent with what Bergmann would regard as purposes worth pursuing. On the other hand, Bergmann’s explanation for why
the Job System’s misallocation of work is never broached – i.e., because we do not think that there are alternatives to the Job System – is closer to the mark. The predominance of the Job
System is inextricably linked to the supremacy of consumerism. It is difficult to find sufficient
cultural, political, and economic support for alternatives to a system that will pay for work to
address problems not encompassed by the vagaries of consumer demand.
1. Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens
Us. Zero Books. 2018.
3. This problem is discussed in a prior post: https://workosophy.org/2022/01/27/our-job-system-
4. Jaspers, Karl. Man in the Modern Age. Anchor Books. 1957. (Originally published in German
in 1931 as Die Geistige Situation Der Zeit (The Spiritual Situation of Our Time).
8. Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens
Us. Zero Books. 2018.
9. Jaspers, Karl. Man in the Modern Age. Anchor Books. 1957. (Originally published in German
in 1931 as Die Geistige Situation Der Zeit (The Spiritual Situation of Our Time).
10. Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens
Us. Zero Books. 2018.6
11. Hannah Arendt’s definitions of “Work” and “Action” are relevant here and are discussed in a
prior post: https://workosophy.org/2020/12/24/the-capacity-to-start-something-new/
Arendt might have observed that Action is necessary to re-allocate work. Action is that “Infinite
Improbability which Occurs Regularly”, i.e., the capacity to start something new.