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“New values in work and adult education and training: New Work = new learning?”

Work is meant to increasingly contribute to self-fulfilment and create meaning in life. Is this trend influencing adult education as well? This focus paper discusses how post-materialist values in general, and New Work values specifically, might impact the future of adult learning.

Increased importance of immaterial values

Meaningfulness, autonomy and self-determination are values that have increasingly been moving into focus for some time. This trend is associated with a shift from materialist to post-materialist values (Inglehart, 1997), which began several decades ago in many societies, but has lost none of its relevance, and is also likely to influence the future. In post-materialist societies, the focus is on maximising quality of life and attaining non-material values.

The quest for meaningfulness, autonomy and self-determination is not only expressed in private life, but is also increasingly influencing the world of work. Various studies have shown that a high salary is no longer the most important criterion by which employees select and evaluate a job. Younger generations in particular, such as Generation Z, are increasingly expressing a desire for self-fulfilment and responsibility at work. In addition, an intellectual challenge, an independent way of working, and innovative tasks are important to them (Waffenschmidt, 2018).

Meaningfulness of work: the concept of New Work

Under the term New Work, the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann (1990) has outlined a concept that describes a type of work that brings immaterial aspects to the fore. New Work can accordingly be seen as a post-materialist conception of the value of work. New Work is work that employees see as meaningful and which they “really want to do”. The focus is on the individual and his or her quest for fulfilment and meaningfulness (Bergmann, 2019). While the concept of New Work was first formulated over 30 years ago, it seems to be increasingly applicable to society’s ideas about work. In an interview recently published on the Think Tank TRANSIT website, Heike Bauer too points out that she sees the change in social values as the fuel for New Work.

However, the concept of New Work is also being criticised. This is firstly because there are many areas of the labour market in which fixed shifts, for example, restrict core New Work values such as autonomy and free time management. Secondly, the focus on meaningfulness, autonomy, and self-determination also carries the risk of self-exploitation, because the boundaries of work are often no longer defined and the completion of work seems to be in the interests of the employee.

Meaningfulness in adult education

Despite this criticism, the concept of New Work brings together issues and concerns that will play a major role in many areas of the world of work in the future. These issues and concerns should also be reflected and discussed in the adult education sector due to the close connection of adult education to the labour market.

On an individual level, with a view to New Work, the core of learning in the future seems to lie in personal development. According to Bauer, each person has to find out for themselves what they can do with their work (especially through learning) – and therefore also with their life.

At the level of adult education institutions, the question arises as to whether New Work also calls for New Learning, and what this might look like (Foelsing & Schmitz, 2021). It seems reasonable to suppose that this new way of learning would have to be guided by the same principles as New Work: meaningfulness, autonomy and self-determination, and association with a learning community. Accordingly, New Learning would have to be based on a new culture and perspective that provide creative learning stimuli for the development of – according to Bauer – a “growth mindset”. New Learning thus involves more than making learning spaces and programmes more flexible. Competences such as proactivity, communication and cooperation must also be taught, as well as the ability to question what has been learned, to relate it to one’s own life-world and to make sense of it.

The limits of meaning-based learning

However, the shift towards individualised and meaning-based learning can also trigger uncertainty. For some learners, there is likely to be a need for standardised forms of adult education where defined content with general validity provides security for all participants. Moreover, New Learning is only fruitful when it encounters New Work in the world of work. Otherwise, it will more likely leave employees dissatisfied, unable to use their skills and unable to see their need for meaningfulness fulfilled.

Therefore it is necessary to reflect on the extent to which adult education needs more flexibilisation and individualisation, or more standardisation. It is also not clear whether individualised forms of learning will increasingly serve as a substitute for standardised forms, or whether the two forms can coexist. Continuing education and training providers must ask themselves how they want to combine standardised and flexible forms of learning or, if necessary, how they want to meet the different needs of participants in different programmes.


Bergmann, F. (1990). Neue Arbeit (New Work). Das Konzept und seine Umsetzung in der Praxis. In. Fricke, Werner (ed.). Jahrbuch Arbeit und Technik. 71-80.

Bergmann, F. (2019). New work new culture: Work we want and a culture that strengthens us. John Hunt Publishing.

Foelsing, J., & Schmitz, A. (2021). New Work braucht New Learning: Eine Perspektivreise durch die Transformation unserer Organisations- und Lernwelten. Springer Gabler.

Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization, postmodernization and changing perceptions of risk. International Review of Sociology, 7(3), 449-459.

Waffenschmidt, B. (2018). Generation Z. Achtung, die Arbeitswelt-Optimierer kommen! –Whitepaper zur Vorstudie «Generation Z und ihre Erwartungen and die zukünftige Arbeitswelt». Kiel/Hamburg: Leibnitz Information Center for Economics. (last accessed on 30.01.2023).

Zukunftsinstitut (2023). Megatrend New Work. (last accessed on 30.01.2023)

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