Chris Bühler is a digital ethicist. He deals with economic and social issues under the premise of digitality and the increasingly dense interconnectedness of our world. As a coach, he offers companies and individuals guidance for digital transformation. He is sceptical about buzz words like flexibility and disorientation and pleads for calmness in an anxious period.
Chris Bühler, we live in a time when people say that practically nothing can be predicted any more. In the face of this supposed or actual haze, what is the attitude of the ethicist?
Chris Bühler: As a good philosopher, it goes without saying that I immediately play the spirit that always denies and ask the counter-question: is the world really as unpredictable as we tell ourselves? Certainly, the speed of changes has increased in recent decades. But a lot of things are still much more stable than we might think in these seemingly hectic times.
The pandemic recently took us by surprise. Apart from certain scientists, no one saw it coming. Is this not an indication that we struggle with forecasts?
There are certainly many things that are difficult to predict. The financial crisis of 2008 is also an example of this. Even most financial experts did not see it coming. But some people – those who were a little cannier with their analyses and forecasts – did predict it. So, I would question this mantra that nothing is certain any more, that we cannot rely on anything. Many things that are considered ‘long outdated’ will be with us for years or decades to come. Reforms in the education system, for example, are marathons rather than sprints. Conversely, many things are sold to us as ‘the future’ that may still be a long way away – or will never become reality. So as a philosopher, I would rather advocate taking a step back and taking a closer look at what is actually going on. In this way we can have a slightly better understanding of what we tell ourselves is happening and what is actually happening. We could say: a bit of stoic stubbornness is called for or – a bit more fashionable – a dose of Buddhism. Step back, take a breath, smile, don’t let yourself be rushed.
You advise companies in change processes. Do you recommend that there as well?
Definitely. In the counselling sessions I often notice a sense of being driven. People always associate change management with rapid change. But especially when it comes to in-depth changes, the processes cannot be speeded up at will. We can’t just give people a processor upgrade so they ‘work’ faster. Apart from that, a lot of things do not need to happen as quickly as we let ourselves believe.
So, you are advocating calmness.
I think calmness is a very important keyword. That is what I wish for myself. And that is also what I very much wish for our society in this period which is often characterised by apparent urgency. Due to this, it is not uncommon for people to forget what is really urgent. Therefore, wrong priorities are often set.
You mentioned the Stoics and Buddhism. You are saying that the classical philosophical approaches are still valid today.
Many classical philosophical virtues still apply, yes. But I always hasten to emphasise that philosophy is not the history of philosophy. We cannot say philosophy amounts to nothing more than just quoting authorities such as Aristotle or Kant. Just because someone made a statement 2,000 years ago does not mean it is still true. Those who now find this heretical may console themselves with this thought: I suspect that the philosophers I mentioned would have preferred critical examination of their ideas to blindly repeating their aphorisms parrot-fashion. Conversely, the ideas do not have to be wrong just because they are a little older and therefore seemingly not innovative. That is why I would still like to go back to Aristotle, or to the Aristotelian cardinal virtue: the search for middle ground, the balance between the extremes, in this case perhaps the middle ground between phlegm and rashness.
Flexibility also describes a concept that first has to be filled.
The demand for flexibility is derived from the supposed unpredictability and instability of our future. Another mantra that needs to be put into perspective?
Of course, I put it into perspective. Flexibility also describes a concept that first has to be filled. We all know that the demand for flexibility is placed on all kinds of things: on work processes as well as on life plans. But we often don’t even know what we mean when we talk about flexibility.
What does the philosopher Chris Bühler understand by flexibilisation?
I understand flexibility in relation to people as the ability to adapt to the environment within an approximate framework – especially with time limits – and to be able to deal with circumstances that go beyond the usual routine. But being flexible does not mean handling every situation like a blank page and somehow adapting to everything, so constantly reinventing ourselves completely. Instead, it is a matter of forging a bridge between what is known on the one hand and what has changed on the other. That is why I always emphasise the importance of attitudes and orientation points. Only with these is it possible to adapt with confidence. Moreover, flexibility cannot be a permanent state of affairs. If this happens, we either return to old basic patterns or change in such a way that the new situation becomes a new normal state and we can be as relaxed as possible. Flexibility as a continuum demoralises. Nevertheless, depending on the context, having to be flexible can be a welcome change or challenge, but it can also be perceived as a painstaking effort or even a threat.
But now you yourself say that flexibility has taken hold of all areas of life and work. Flexibilisation of working hours, work locations and careers. It seems to have become a permanent state of affairs. People have to be flexible all the time and everywhere so that they can keep up.
It seems all the more important to me to build on foundations first. For me in concrete terms, this means working on personality development. This has a lot to do with self-reflection, which is again a basic demand of many philosophical teachings: know thyself! This should lead to attitudes. An attitude is something quite different from a position. It provides a point of orientation. I can move around this to come into contact with my environment. This enables flexibility: attitudes are negotiable. In contrast, I understand positions as something rigid.
If we can be anything, we also have to consider what we want to be.
Flexibility does also have a positive connotation. There is something like a promise of freedom in it, the solution to rigid hierarchies, for example, perhaps even the temptation that we can be anything we want to be. What is in this promise?
If we can be anything, we also have to consider what we want to be. This is why I consider personality development to be the basis of so much. The better we are in contact with ourselves, our own potential, attitudes and values, the clearer we can determine which paths are open to us and which we want to take. This is, of course, an ongoing, lifelong process. But, this way we gain this freedom which can be inherent in flexibility.
If we have to be flexible, if we need to keep reinventing ourselves, we also have to keep learning new things. Do you also perceive a kind of flurry of activity in further education?
Basically, I believe that if we stop learning, we can also stop living. So hopefully we are always learning, often also in an informal context. But I also consider institutionalised further education to be something worthwhile, even if people in it sometimes feel a bit rushed. Besides the buzz word of lifelong learning, today there are also others such as lean learning and agility. People should, if possible, learn everything quickly and on the job, in small digestible morsels. That certainly has its validity. But sound basic education seems all the more important to me and then, in the meantime, more in-depth further education. Only on this foundation is it possible to classify small morsels of learning and make confident use of them.
But people who now face the threat that their profession will no longer exist in a few years must be very insecure, even more so if they identify themselves through this profession.
Dealing with uncertainty is definitely one of the future skills people should acquire in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. By the way, a philosophy degree prepares you really well for this because you have to permanently throw cherished certainties overboard. During my studies I would never have thought that we would learn so much that would actually be useful in my future everyday life (laughs). But I would like to go one step further. Because what we are talking about now is the consequence of a social development that has lasted several decades and which could be called the ‘decanonisation of values’. The ‘68 movement, which radically questioned rigid or perceived rigid structures and also conservative values, played a major role in this. This generation and those that followed also rebelled against traditional lifestyles of doing the same thing from apprenticeship to retirement, and preferably still in the same company. They questioned the classic career, linear hierarchical advancement and of course hierarchies themselves. From a conservative perspective, these were definitely nihilistic tendencies. And, in fact, conservative values have fallen partly by the wayside or have at least been replaced by new values. The process is still ongoing, as demonstrated by the success story of buzz words such as diversity, diversification, agility and, ultimately, also flexibility. They are both a curse and a blessing: flexibility gives me the opportunity to be anything I want. But it also puts the onus on me to take care of it myself.
And whether it is a curse or a blessing is a question of attitude, if I understand you correctly?
Once I have developed an attitude as a foundation and also regularly ask myself whether it is still right, I have something to come back to again and again. In this case, flexibility is also really a good thing. I can try something new because I have my orientation points. I deliberately say orientation points in the plural because it is not just about one core. We have different roles in our lives, different interests. This way I can also integrate new things, then I have one more point. Or I decide that something is not my thing after all. That unsettles me much less than if I only have one main identification point for myself. In our society, gainful employment is still often this lynchpin of our identity. If this is threatened and there are few other supporting pillars, it is no wonder that the term flexibilisation triggers fear and not a sense of freedom.
I would call the desire for orientation and security an anthropological constant.
We spoke earlier about the shaking up of traditional values. They have not disappeared entirely. On the contrary: they are living on and sometimes even growing strong again. How come?
I would call the desire for orientation and security an anthropological constant. In this sense, slogans like agility and flexibilisation can certainly be read in this way: they are sayings, certainly not completely devoid of substance, but sayings that are used to make ourselves look good. But we might just put on a bit of a flexibility act at times and be quite happy when we can go home again in the evening, to the place we know, to the structures we are familiar with. One manifestation of this flexibilisation in the world of work is, for example, the abolition of fixed workplaces. There is often an economic rationale behind it: we have part-time people, so we need less space and can save on rental costs if we do desk sharing. In the process of implementation, however, certain patterns repeatedly stand out: scepticism often dominates at first. But then everything is initially much easier than expected, the allocation of workplaces is reshuffled. After six months, however, stable structures have often formed again. People could choose their workplace anew every morning, but they always sit in the same place or in the same constellations.
And yet it is attempted again and again.
Conversely, I do not believe that we need stability and clarity in each and every case and at all times. They are, rather, phases that alternate and, in some cases, can overlap in different areas of life: if family or place of residence are very clear, then we can certainly be more flexible at work. When we are going through family turbulence, we are glad when our job is stable.
Today, however, many people are noticeably more flexible at work.
Unlike when I first started working, it is now common practice to change jobs more often. If we have already filled four or five positions by the time we are 30, we show that we have already looked at different things, moved in different contexts and learned a lot. In my day, most HR people would have branded that as an ‘unsteady lifestyle’. These days, this kind of flexibility is perceived as positive. Today, we have the possibility to change our position, our task, even our profession, and to train accordingly. Ultimately, this is also the prerequisite for true New Work, to do ‘what I really, really want to do’, as the inventor of the concept, Frithjof Bergmann, put it.
Could we say that flexibility and stability are mutually dependent?
I think so. We also find greater stability again in religious or perhaps rather spiritual communities. Many people are leaving national churches. But free churches or alternative religious services are becoming very popular. This shows that we long for long-term orientation. Sport also spontaneously comes to mind for me here. Identification with a club sometimes serves as a substitute religion. With a football club, for example, we are not only connected for a lifetime, but often for generations. This is, if we want to put it that way, overcoming flexibility. We do have a much wider range of choices. But from this we pick out things again that give us stability.
But we can still change football clubs.
Of course. This is also possible with religious offers that are not too extreme. And it has also become possible at work. Knowing that we do not have to stick rigidly to a choice once it has been made gives us the freedom to try out more.
Is this the essence of our time: the knowledge that we don’t have to do something?
I think that has a ring to it – and it can be a liberation and a burden. My hope, of course, is that we see not having to do something as an opportunity, a chance to remain curious and hungry to learn. These are good conditions for us to be able to create a good life for ourselves and also to do good for our society and our environment as a whole.