Berlin / DPA
“And what do you do?” Hardly a first chat with a stranger goes by these days without someone asking the question. But why is it so important what we do? And why is a successful career such an important goal for some people?
For the members of Haus Bartleby, a network founded two years ago and which calls itself the “Centre for Career Rejection,” professional success isn’t worth having. The network in Berlin, a city famous for gadfly, alternative philosophies, doesn’t have the answers for how the world of work ought to look, but it wants to start a debate.
Its website encourages discussion of questions like, “Whose interests are we serving when we have a career?” and “Why do we have to apply for jobs when we’re not ‘employed’?” It’s assumed that in Germany’s welfare state, handouts or odd jobs suffice to keep people alive.
Alix Fassman and Anselm Lenz sit in a park in the German capital Berlin and explain why they don’t want careers. Fassman used to be journalist working for the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD), while Lenz used to work at a Hamburg theatre.
Though others might have envied them such shining positions, they didn’t feel fulfilled by their jobs. Fassman talks about “hot air” and Lenz of “self-reference” among the self-important creatives they met.
“Of course everybody is free to make their own decisions – if it is in fact making a decision,” says Fassman. Lots of people feel they’re required to pursue a career, the 33-year-old says. After leaving her job she travelled through Italy and thought about what she wanted to do with her life. In Sicily she met 36-year-old Lenz, who encouraged her to write a book.
It was published in early 2014 with the title, “Work Is Not Our Life: Instructions On How To Reject A Career.” Six months later, Lenz and Fassman founded Haus Bartleby to try and bring similar-minded people together. “It wasn’t about self-fulfilment, we wanted to team up with others. That’s why we turned to the public,” says Fassman. Theatre producer Hendrik Sodenkamp also became disillusioned about the idea of a career. He found out about Haus Bartleby at the beginning of 2015 and three months later he dropped out of his cultural studies and German-literature degree. Working towards a career means doing one thing after another in the hope it might pay off one day, he contends. “It delays the present until an uncertain future and means that you do things in the here and now that aren’t right.”
Around 4,500 people have signed up for the alternative think-tank’s newsletter. Last year it organized debates on work ethics, idleness and published its first book, which was written with contributions from psychology professor Morus Markard, architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel, singer Dirk von Lowtzow and the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. But even those who refuse to chase a career have to live off something, even if they have no families to raise or elderly relatives to support. The Haus Bartleby members do various odd jobs in order to pay the bills – Fassman is a freelance journalist and Lenz works as a ghostwriter.
“Refusing to have a career is not the same as refusing to work,” says Fassman. Sodenkamp has also been doing jobs since money that he inherited from his grandparents ran out. But even though money is tight now, they all say that they now feel there’s a purpose to their lives; they’re fighting for a new world of work.
At the moment, Fassman, Lenz and Sodenkamp are dedicating themselves to
their latest Bartleby project, a so-called Capitalism Tribunal. People were invited to say what annoyed them about the capitalist system on an internet page; they collected around 400 complaints and in May they were read out and “tried” at a “court” set up in a theatre in Vienna.
Next year, more “cases” will be presented at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a contemporary arts centre, supported by organizations including the Club of Rome think tank and the leftist Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
The three say the goal of the tribunal isn’t to show how the world of work should look in the future, but to work out what shouldn’t be allowed to happen any more – topics range from health insurance to property. “We’d love what comes out of it to be taken seriously,” says Lenz. And Fassman adds, “We seriously mean it. It’s not art or theatre.”