The Blurring Boundaries of Paid Work and Private Life


By Birgit Huber (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)


In an increasingly neo-liberal society the relationship between work life and free time is changing.  During doctoral fieldwork in Germany I accompanied employees and freelancers through their work day and also during other activities, including many translocal projects that could be linked back, in some way, to their affiliation with a small multimedia agency in the Black Forest.

This Black Forest multimedia agency offered its customers the “full service,” with provisions that ranged from enterprise communication, to brand labelling, to the design and publication of customer magazines and websites.  There are more than 200 multimedia enterprises of this size in Baden-Württemberg, each with a similar mix of full-time employees and freelancers. These “cultural entrepreneurs” work in the town and in the rural area that surrounds it, but they also telecommute to bigger cities all over Germany.

A main premise of post-Fordist theory argues that changed regimes of production influence not only the mechanisms of labor, but also generate new forms of manpower.  While following the daily practices of a “client-network” (made up of employees, freelancers and their clients), I made some unusual observations relating to the commodification of human creativity and subjectivity.  Following the general trend toward economic neoliberalism, employment patterns at the agency illustrated an increased economization of the private sphere and a dissolving of standardized patterns of time and space, including a sense of employees’ embeddedness in their workplaces.  In the Black Forest, I found that not only was the distinction between work and leisure (or rather between paid and non-paid activities) being blurred, but there was also a blurring of the distinction between work being done for money, and unpaid work being done for the creative/artistic sake of it.

This emphasis on craft skills and creativity represented multimedia specialists’ attempt to re-embed and stabilize their work in a new tradition of community that could replace the collapsed environment of old Fordist workplaces.  In urban areas, like Cologne, cultural entrepreneurs were networked often around universities, and they built their sense of community upon the image of belonging to a “global city” that shared its traditions with places like London and New York.  In contrast to the identity of being flexible cosmopolitan freelancer, I found that in the rural region of the Black Forest multimedia professionals drew a sense of continuity by linking themselves with the rural traditions of the cottage industry and image of the home craftsman.  Drawing from these traditions, one Black Forest cultural entrepreneur I visited had successfully set up a home business that drew from a three-generation family tradition of paid and unpaid work, in a home environment in which labor and leisure were inseparably meshed.  They drew from the handcraft practices, and from an organization of work time and space, which one could definitively see as “pre-Fordist..”


[Birgit Huber is a German ethnologist who received her doctorate from the University of Tübingen.  You may read about her research with Black Forest multimedia workers in a volume of ethnographic studies on telecommuting work, which she co-edited in 2003: Subjektivierte Arbeit. Mensch, Organisation und Technik in einer entgrenzten Arbeitswelt Huber is currently a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, in

Halle/Saale, Germany, where she is studying the role of religious communities’ in creating space for jobless workers in the de-industrialized city of Eisenhuttenstadt.  You may contact her at .]


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