Pedagogy of Work in Postmodern Society: Between Job Insecurity and Digital Revolution

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This article aims to analyze how the so-called ‘pedagogy of work’ attempts to answer the challenges of unemployment and job insecurity characterizing the labor market in contemporary society. The authors reflect on the concepts of nihilist pedagogies and the ‘end of work’ by distinguishing two approaches: an active and a passive nihilist pedagogy. The passive approach, based on resignation, is opposed to an active attitude in which labor pedagogy offers tools to address current challenges. The authors support the idea that pedagogy as a human-improving science cannot adopt the position of passive nihilism in interpreting work in contemporary society. To better understand the dynamics related to job insecurity and corrective solutions by pedagogy, the authors analyzed the thoughts of three contemporary philosophers: Zygmunt Bauman, Jeremy Rifkin, and Dominique Méda. These authors redefined the concept of work in connection with the transformations because of globalization, the advent of new communication technologies, and digital work. These changes have redefined not only the concept of work but also the models of work pedagogy in the Western world: capitalism and Marxism. Considering the current challenges, the pedagogy of work needs to be rethought, starting from the problem of employability and focusing on the new occupations in demand in the Internet age. By integrating ideas on interpreting work from the theories of Bauman, Rifkin, and Méda, it is possible to propose a pedagogy of work in the age of change and to outline possible values of education inspired by it.

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In contemporary society, work seems to assume more and more the appearance of a product-process of “communication”, which often comes as “services” (more or less shared and personalized) and services. All this means that the work in our society is configured as an object that requires qualified personnel and human “resources” or “human capital” equipped with skills for creating, optimizing, developing, and implementing this communication.

The new paradigms of labor sharing understood as “communication” in the sense ascribed to it above seem to bring back into vogue the Marxist dream of a planetary government by the masses and a hypothetical “democratic dictatorship” of the “proletariat” that the masses today have replaced, thus redesigning and opening up new and unthinkable scenarios until a few decades ago for labor pedagogy [1; 2].

Someone may object that this “government” and this “democracy” are only apparent and that, in reality, they are always masses controlled by the interests of oligarchs, the new capitalists of the e-economy. This economic elite, interested in maximizing the profits obtained from their companies that, focusing on goods and services, aimed at consumers, conditioned and standardized in their tastes through induced needs, can count on a planetary clientele able to increase their sales and the consequent earnings out of all proportion.

However, on closer inspection, the criticism of this complex form of democracy open from the scenarios of the production of goods and services in contemporary society is a problem that concerns democracy tout court. Democracy always represents the domain of the “many” over the “few” and, as a form of government, it is not alien to malfunctions, misunderstandings, errors, and iniquities. These shortcomings occur when the masses are not actually educated to use democracy, are deceitfully deceived, and are not accustomed to developing critical and reflective thought.

Western democracies represent a good example. In those cases, governments highly depend on the interests of parties, elites, oligarchies, and dominant groups, always careful to limit the freedom of expression and communication at the moment in which criticisms are addressed to them that may affect the consensus acquired more or less with the imposition or non-shared change of the rules of democracy itself. The Italian case is exemplary in this sense, a country that is in 58th place in the 2022 Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) report for freedom of expression and in which there is a continuous manipulation of information (economic, political, social) transmitted by the mass media often controlled by parties and government bodies interested in maintaining a permanent status quo situation.

However, as the advocates of direct democracy well know, it is possible to combat these forms of control and obstacle to the undemocratic manipulation of information precisely through those means of sharing knowledge and opinions and of participation represented precisely by the new technologies of network communication and distance. The future and the quality of western democracy seem to move towards “electronic democracy” (e-democracy) that encourages participation in digital form and at a distance in people’s decisions. This form of democracy, which also impacts the conception and implementation of working practices in the contemporary world, needs a pedagogical reflection that can guarantee qualitatively acceptable fruition through specific education [3].

The new scenarios, opened up by the possibility of direct and democratic participation and disclosed by the new means of web communication, envisage new dynamics for the conception of work and the development of theoretical-practical models of work education in contemporary society. These scenarios complicate the dynamics between Marxist and capitalist forms of conceptions of work, hybridizing them and calling pedagogy as a human and social science to an analysis of work in the contemporary world [4].

Nihilist pedagogies and ‘end of work’

In contemporary times, the concepts of development and growth seem to be determined not only by economic logic but also by psychological and emotional variables that the human sciences seem better able to capture than other sciences. In recent years, economists have introduced the concept of happy degrowth, referring to an environment dominated by uncertainty and instability about the future with a substantial inability to predict and respond to change. In this context, the American economist Rifkin introduced the idea of “the end of work” [5].

But is it correct to use the term “end” to conceive work in contemporary society? Is this really an “end” or, in reality, does this expression indicate nothing more than the “beginning” of something new destined to last over time and for future years? Perhaps in contemporary society and culture, it is not a work to be finished, but what is ended is a specific “ideology” of work as it had been delineating and structuring itself in western history and to whose development in modernity Marxist and capitalist theories have contributed significantly.

According to this perspective, it would not be the end of the work we are witnessing today but its “crisis”. The current situation should be understood not in the sense of destruction or irreparable and definitive loss but of a transformation that implies a rethinking of its purpose and its meanings considering the profound and structural changes that new technologies (especially today of the Web) are causing to the ways of sharing and implementing work in our society [6]. This crisis is always positive regarding feedback and information received and usable for improving human actions and behaviors.

These profound transformations envisage the possibility of interpreting the work from a “nihilistic” perspective that can be passive or active. The view proposed by the passive nihilistic interpretation of work implies a pessimistic approach based on resignation, acceptance of the status quo of a factual situation where employment for people in traditional jobs has decreased or disappeared because of structural changes in the production systems and the conception of the goods produced. This idea of irreparable loss generates a void from which flows a lack of commitment toward accepting the challenge posed by the change of work in the contemporary world.

The active nihilist perspective toward work suggests a position contrary to the previous one. The starting point of active nihilism is that contemporary society has radically changed in the last few years affecting the labor market. The transformation of society and work in Western society was because of multiple factors like globalization and the advent of new communication technologies and digital work [7]. Active nihilism supports the idea that work, as it was traditionally understood in the past, does not exist anymore.

These two types of nihilism (passive and active) correspond to two specific pedagogies of work, which we can define as “nihilist”. Both have in common the idea of “absence” and “emptiness” in work. However, in the passive nihilist pedagogy, the so-called “end” of work is inescapable and characterized by an unbridgeable void with all the pessimism and resignation that comes with it. For the active nihilist pedagogy of work, this void triggers the deployment of energy to change the situation. Active nihilist pedagogy aims to rethink contemporary work differently by using education and new technologies to train human beings who will have to operate in that work context in the future [8].

Passive nihilist pedagogy sees contemporary work as a complex challenge to be faced and overcome through education. Contemporary work pedagogy thus seems to involve a choice between resignation and passive acceptance of work as presented by interpreting a possible passive nihilism and the commitment and enthusiasm of a possible active nihilism.

Work perceived from the perspective of active nihilist pedagogy presupposes a logic that replaces the idea of nihil (nothing) with that of diversum (different). From a diversum perspective, work is “different” and “distant” from how it was in the past.

Contemporary work is based on the principle of different (diversum), as opposed and distinct concerning work as it was understood in the past. This difference makes it uncertain, and inconstant, and generates perplexity among people. This characteristic can be defined as the perspective of diversity in contemporary work. Such a perspective sees contemporary work as diverse and fills the conceptual gap and the absence of pedagogical engagement assumed by passive nihilism.

This interpretation unveils other perspectives and the possibility of rethinking meanings, spaces, functions, and jobs in the contemporary world according to different logics. Active nihilism, in the diversity perspective, presupposes the development of the logic of adaptation and resilience in interpreting contemporary work by implying a new pedagogy.

Such pedagogy firmly takes critical positions against the rhetoric of work based on generic statements such as, “work exists; however, one must invent it”; “one must adapt to working conditions and be content”; “one must always train to develop skills.” The rhetoric of work, while responding to some founding principles of work education in contemporary times (creativity, flexibility understood as open-mindedness and adaptation, disposition to lifelong learning), often seems to be dictated more by interests that are subject to capitalist logic rather than implementing pedagogical models [9]. This rhetoric seems to have more to do with lowering expectations of remuneration and positioning concerning the qualifications possessed, maintaining the status quo in a society that increasingly sees the dominance of a McDonaldized conception of work [10]. This rhetoric should divert the tension of workers or job seekers toward demanding rights and greater dignity and quality in the work they do or wish to do.

Indeed, for pedagogy as a science, the choice between the passive and active nihilistic conception of work is complex. However, pedagogy as a human-improving science cannot adopt the position of passive nihilism in interpreting work in contemporary society.

The active nihilist pedagogy of work opens up new spaces for reflection that oppose the possible pessimistic instances implicit in the widespread theory of the “end of work”. This theory supports the idea that what is “finished” in today’s society and culture is not work but the ideology of work as it was conceived in the past. This end implies a “crisis” of work understood as a “rethinking” of its purposes and meanings in the contemporary world [11].

In this context, spaces open up for an extensive pedagogical reflection that starts from complex and specific questions that highlight and challenge the very structure of pedagogy as a human science. These questions (besides questioning whether pedagogy can have a role within the contemporary conception of work) are: is it possible to conceive a “liquid” pedagogy of work (or a pedagogy of “liquid” work) in the contemporary world? Is a pedagogy of end of work theoretically and practically possible? In an age in which economists introduced the idea of “degrowth” as a concept as opposed to “growth” and “development,” is a pedagogy of degrowth possible? And if so, how can the theory implied in it be reconciled with the capitalist and Marxist pedagogies of labor that continually dominate or resurface in contemporary society?

Perspectives of Bauman, Rifkin, and Méda on contemporary work

The philosophers Zygmunt Bauman (1925—2017), Jeremy Rifkin (1945) and Dominique Méda (1962) have reflected on the concept of work and its socio-pedagogical dimension (Table 1). These thinkers redefined the concept of work in connection with the transformations of contemporary society. These changes have radically reshaped both production and communication relations. The profound changes in society accelerated by new communication technologies have changed the concept of work and challenged classical educational theories.

Zygmunt Bauman has highlighted the ‘liquidity’ of the human condition by using a metaphor that has become indicative of the society and culture of the first decades of the new millennium. This ‘liquidity’ — as opposed to the 'solidity' and ‘solidity’ of the societies of the past — characterises all our lives and conditions all possible relationships that mark the existence of human beings [12]. The 'liquidity' of people's social, economic and professional lives makes the lack of certainty the very essence of the conception of the future. The impossibility of foreseeing future trends or scenarios makes any forecast on work and employment vain, uncertain and unpredictable.

Table 1 Perspectives of Bauman, Rifkin, and Méda on contemporary work and its socio-pedagogical dimension


Type of pedagogical intervention suggested


Liquidity (Bauman)

pedagogy of improvement effort

personal and community well-being and happiness

End of work (Rifkin)

up-to-date education (more digital skills)

knowledge elite

Work less, work all (Méda)

critical education that reshapes people’s needs

pursuit of happiness and psychic and social well-being / happy degrowth

Job instability and uncertainty for the future create psychological and social problems [13, 14]. All this generates suffering, pain, and anger (due to unfulfilled expectations on the part of society), forces the younger generations to emigrate, or causes them to shut themselves up in laxity and total passivity. Uncertainty spreads feelings of psychological and social malaise that turn into pathologies that jeopardize the very survival of western democracies and their implementation in terms of the correctness of methodological procedures and content (democratic values).

All this implies ethical and pedagogical problems of epochal proportions [15]. The work ethic has now become a life (and vital) ethic. Work, for example, is sometimes presented as something that is supposed to be used to earn enough to survive and be happy by doing or producing something (a good or service) that is useful to others and that others will consider qualitatively valuable to their lives and worthy of being bought. It is crucial always to aim to improve one’s product or service. Rest is only the starting point for regaining one’s strength and continuing to strive and work to offer a better product to others.

These ethical principles, if developed in the context of respect for both the rights and duties of workers and the needs of employers, could effectively lead to overcoming possible logic of deception, asymmetry, and dominance in labor and production relations. A work ethic conceived in this way unveils anthropo-pedagogical perspectives in which work becomes the pretext for the activation of personal improvement processes, for the deployment of resources and energies in pursuit of an objective that is none other than one’s perfectibility as a human being.

In this effort to improve the production of a shared good, it is crucial to rediscover the dignity of work and of the person who performs it and the social values that education and training always aim and intend to pursue. These ethical principles envisage a pedagogy of work that is directed towards a pedagogy of effort committed to improving the quality of people’s lives through the production of goods and services that are ethically grounded and oriented not towards a mere and superficial ‘consumption’ but towards a purpose that pursues personal and community well-being and happiness. Here, happiness is given by the emotional gratification generated by the production of a good for the well-being of others can generate.

The American economist Jeremy Rifkin (1945) emphasized how, in an ‘unnatural’ and obsessive economy where resources are used to produce in a way that fosters excess consumption, there is a need to re-enter a ‘natural’ cycle of production. In this context, concepts such as ‘recycling’, ‘clean and renewable energies’, ‘happy degrowth’, and ‘sustainability’ assume a central role.

The main problem is that formal and non-formal education cannot keep up with the constant updates and demands for specific training emerging from the ongoing technological changes [16]. The contents proposed by education systems appears outdated: most of the digital skills of the new generations are learned ‘informally’, autonomously, and through the Internet itself.

The so-called ‘access’ metaphor dominates today’s society and has become one of the metaphors of our era (and thus also of the economy and education/training), as Rifkin himself emphasized. In the age of access, the Internet seems to cause our ills and its remedy.

The Internet offers endless work and training opportunities for those who know how to access it with versatility and competence. Accessing and using the network also requires skills people need to develop to use the Internet profitably and critically. Digital technologies and production systems have changed the way of working, training, and social relations [17].

As Rifkin indicated over twenty years ago, the workers on whom the industrial production system of the past rested are gradually being transformed into knowledge workers [6]. The younger generations must be formed — and this is the task of schools and universities — into knowledge elites capable of creating, investing, and managing the improvement of human community life. This capital will no longer be predominantly economic but social and knowledge-based.

An alternative vision that seeks to reconcile the work perspective outlined by Bauman and Rifkin is offered to us by French economist, sociologist, and philosopher Dominique Méda (1962). According to this scholar, to make up for the lack of employment that is an objective fact of the traditional labor system, it is necessary to reduce the actual working hours per week performed by people to redistribute the work itself better [18].

For Méda, for example, by working all and less (even with a pay cut), people would have more time for themselves and leisure activities [19; 20]. Working, having a place in society, and feeling useful would prevent people from the psychological damage and suffering associated with a lack of work [21]. Consequently, the person with his dignity would assume a central role in the working context. After all, work is not the goal of life: it should only be a means of procuring enough to guarantee oneself a dignified life and satisfy one’s needs in enjoying shared psychological, social, and economic well-being [22].

This working model envisages a pedagogical intervention in favor of a new (and critical) education that redraws the map of human needs and values to which people’s lives must conform. These values are sociality, leisure, solidarity, and the cultivation of personal interests. This economic model, to be implemented, needs a rethinking of the competitive models advocated by contemporary society. It is then a matter of developing an economic and social model that, before gain and wealth, puts the pursuit of happiness and psychic and social well-being first among the objectives to be achieved through work.

The pedagogy of work between old epistemologies and new anthropologies

Within the educational sciences and the framework of so-called “nonformal education,” pedagogy of work, through an interdisciplinary approach, studies the conditions for possible improvement of teaching-learning conditions within the enterprise in anthropological labor relations and lifelong learning of people [23].

Characterized by an interest in economic-enterprise efficiency and the humanization of work, this specialized pedagogy focuses on the impact that the content and forms of work organization can have on people’s education. As in all pedagogies, the person plays a central role in the pedagogy of work [24]. This specialized pedagogy is constantly seeking a balance between the democratization of work and the market needs in an ethical effort to reconcile the rights and duties of the actors involved in work processes through training. Pedagogy of work not only considers training as the primary and fundamental tool for improving skills, interpersonal relations, and communication between all the actors involved in the human labor system but is also committed on the social side to creating permanent learning opportunities for all [25]. This commitment is driven by the awareness that from the qualitative improvement of the processes of work implementation can come the psychological and social well-being that is the prelude to a better, fairer, and more just society.

If the task of pedagogy of work can be summarized as ‘thinking educationally about work’ [26] and helping companies to think as such, it is also true that its main objectives are mainly social. As a borderline science between psychology and sociology, contemporary pedagogy of work, despite the identity crisis it is suffering through for the reasons highlighted in this essay, continues to envisage an epistemology that seeks to understand and interpret work by bringing together three main visions, namely:

1) the sociological vision, which studies work as a social reality that interacts with other social phenomena linked to specific historical and political contexts;
2) the educational vision, which considers work from the perspective of education (formal education) and training (non-formal education) and seeks to unify the two perspectives by using them for the development of skills in people;
3) the anthropological vision, which analyzes work as an activity that gives meaning to human beings and permanently perfects them by realizing their specific vocation.

As a specific field of educational sciences, pedagogy of work is committed to defining not only the relationship between homo socialis (social man) and homo faber (man the maker) but also the cultural and educational spaces in which the perspectives disclosed by this relationship can meet. This space is naturally a critical-hermeneutic pedagogical space in which, through continuous reflection and an emancipation-oriented praxis, work-related processes are analyzed and understood in their socio-cultural meanings and transformed into pedagogical actions of integration and inclusion addressed to people and the improvement of the communities and territories in which they live.

Therefore, pedagogy of work is like any other pedagogy, an interpretive and normative hermeneutic science centered on intervention, which also has a descriptive dimension that it shares with other specialized social sciences (such as the sociology of labor) that are now also taking shape according to an interventionist logic [27].

Pedagogy of work presents itself as an educational knowledge born to find a response to specific needs. Therefore, it should be considered as a project for research and development of the human being in the context of work understood as a system described by productive, educational, and social processes linked to specific modes of expression and creativity, both individual and collective.

The concentration of the interests of contemporary pedagogy on work is, in fact, helpful in eliminating clichés related to the view of pedagogical research on work concerning the analysis conducted by the other human sciences [1]. The object of study of this form of pedagogy is distinct from but related to that of social pedagogy, which, in turn, has natural links and continuous comparisons with general pedagogy. Labor pedagogical research, which is mainly focused on the social dimension, aims at improving human coexistence in a view that can unite educational demands with inclusive social responses such as employability [28].

This is the area of interest of work pedagogy which has now become autonomous in the peculiarity of research, with its study object, although connected to general pedagogy, but with its methodological peculiarity [29]. Of course, the relationship with other human sciences, particularly sociology, is favored and desirable. In the method implemented, the working dimension as a specific constituent of the pedagogy of work maintains the relationship with the general pedagogy through the design phase, followed by the description, interpretation, and combination of social results.

In the pedagogy of contemporary work, there are currently two specific contemporary anthropologies: of homo otiosus and homo voluntas [30—32]. The anthropology of homo otiosus expresses the condition in which contemporary man lives in which the lack of employability and the progressive replacement of human work with machines means that people have a considerable amount of free time and time to devote to recreational activities (sports, recreational activities, tourism). The anthropology of homo voluntas refers to a specific vision of the postmodern subject and his creativity from the perspective of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy (1913—2005) [33]. This vision presents the idea of a contemporary human being who, to escape the emptiness and annihilation of the postmodern condition, finds its existential meaning in creative activities based on models and implementation processes similar to work. Some examples of creative activities are volunteering, recreation, hobbies, or the cultivation of particular interests for practical utility, which express the will of the subject to escape and assert his own identity by engaging in pursuiting a personal and community good even in contexts in which the absence of employability and traditionally understood work appears to be a fact [34].


In this complex and changing scenario, does it still make sense to discuss a pedagogy of work? If so, what pedagogy of work should be adopted in the age of the end of work? Liquidity, if we like it, with all its ethical, anthropological, organizational, and educational implications, is a fact that cannot be ignored. We propose to rethink the pedagogy of work, starting from the problem of employability and focusing on the new occupations required in the Internet age. By integrating the ideas on interpreting the work briefly obtained from the theories of Bauman, Rifkin, and Méda, it is possible to propose a sketch of a “provisional” pedagogy of work in the era of change and outline the possible values ​​of education inspired by it.

The pedagogy of work we propose results from integrating different pedagogies. These pedagogies refer to the ‘fragments’ of what remains of work as traditionally understood in our time. In the perspective of ‘liquidity’, ‘end of work’, ‘work less, work all’, and in the context of a shared economy and solidarity, we propose the pedagogy of ‘micro’, as opposed to the pedagogy of ‘macro’. In an era in which the objectives of macroeconomic systems seem to fail because they not only put wealth in the hands of a few but do not generate “development” and “growth”, often appearing to be unsustainable both from a social and environmental point of view, it is necessary to enhance the so-called “microeconomies” and the projects that promote them. An example of such an economic model was developed by the Bengali economist and banker Muhammod Iunus (1940), who proposed the revolutionary system of micro-credits (modest loans to entrepreneurs too poor to obtain bank lending). This model, however, requires a new approach to the economy and needs an economic education that puts people, their real needs, their interests, and their territories seen at the center of the economy, seen as micro-centers / micro-cells of an organization/organism that can live independently and interdependently to the “whole”.

Moreover, the difficulties of adaptation and the suffering generated by the lack of traditional employment, the need to adapt and constantly question one’s skills, and the uncertainty of job insecurity require the assumption of particular instances and educational strategies in the pedagogy of work envisaged by the ‘pedagogy of resilience’. This pedagogy, which stems from the educational theory and practice of ‘resilience’, aims to educate and train people to develop skills that enable them to cope with — through individual and community strategies — and overcome the traumas of job loss. Moreover, people can develop skills to overcome difficult periods due to job loss by resisting stress through psychological mechanisms that promote personal well-being.

It is, therefore, a matter of rethinking the pedagogy of work in terms of a theory and praxis of an ‘education to hope and happiness’ as envisaged by Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire (1921—1997). A happiness that is not naively conceived or pursued, which is to be found not in the traditional work of industrial production — as the grand narratives of the West would have it — but in ‘other’ jobs. Those jobs have as their starting point the cultivation of one’s interests and the gratification derived from the manifestation of one’s solidarity with others in the sharing of values embodied in the spirit of humanity (whether religious or secular) and brotherhood [35. P. 20].

This pedagogy of work also takes the form of a ‘pedagogy of leisure’ and culture and sees work as an activity that contributes to the development of human cultures. This pedagogy appreciates human culture’s value and beauty in producing material and spiritual goods [36]. This approach is the synthesis of what we can call the ‘pedagogy of otium’ instead of ‘negotium’ which no longer seems to exist in its traditional forms.

Of course, to conclude the synthesis of the possible disciplinary contributions that different pedagogies can make to the so-called ‘pedagogy of work’, we cannot forget those derived from digital pedagogy. That kind of pedagogy refers to the use of the Internet and the possibilities offered by Web 2.0 resources by critically examining them and using them as tools to develop lifelong competencies for life (first and foremost) and work as an integral but not exclusive part of it. In the age of communication, the Internet is becoming increasingly important to train skills helpful in carrying out new professions, which often have the digital and virtual context built by them as their scenario. The Internet, in reality, opens up new opportunities and configures “other” scenarios for contemporary work.

In a scenario in which the presence of virtual reality advances more and more every day and the time of learning, having fun, and working are confused, the Internet and technology will increasingly represent a safe and reassuring place for our life. This place will have to be transformed, through education, not into a refuge to escape the pain and dissatisfaction of everyday life, nor opium for the new generations without occupation. On the contrary, the Internet and technology should turn into a new world in which everyone can work and train themselves, becoming those nobles and kings for whom work was and will always be an otium and never labor marked by fatigue and pain.


About the authors

Mario De Martino

Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University)

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0002-3903-6532

Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing, Faculty of Economics

6, Miklukho-Maklaya St., Moscow, 117198, Russian Federation

Roberta Alonzi

Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University)

ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3604-3283

Professor, Department of Foreign Languages, Philological Faculty

6, Miklukho-Maklaya St., Moscow, 117198, Russian Federation

Emanuele Isidori

Foro Italico University of Rome

ORCID iD: 0000-0002-5214-6015

Professor, Department of Movement, Human and Health Sciences

6, Piazza L. De Bosis, Rome, 00135, Italy


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