Are most jobs in today’s world pointless? Surely not – if that were true, people would realise. But what if they already have?
The year is 1930. Revered economist John Maynard Keynes — whose ideas would go on to shape 20th century economics and beyond — theorises that by the time industrial automation is commonplace, a 15-hour work week will naturally arise, as the goods and services required to sustain us all will be produced far quicker and more efficiently. Obviously, this didn’t happen (unless you’re a student, in which case your working hours would be even lower). As of yet, the working class have yet to see this promise manifest itself. Why is this?
The late David Graeber, an anthropologist, activist, and anarchist who passed away in September, worked on a hunch that would develop into the discovery of a vast conspiracy of lies, performance, and guilt, all pointing to one answer: Bull**** Jobs. Graeber argues that over half of jobs that exist today are essentially meaningless, in that they serve no purpose; not to better the individual, nor to provide value to society. In his book of the same provocative name, the argument is made that, as automation reduced the working hours of those who produced essential goods, we ended up creating new (and essentially pointless) jobs, so as to provide work to those who would otherwise be enjoying far more recreational lives.
“A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence – even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” – David Graeber, Bull**** Jobs
When this theory is laid out in more quantitative terms, it becomes harder to dispute. Graeber goes on to describe five distinct kinds of ‘bull**** jobs’:
- One category he identifies are the ‘flunkies’: people who serve in jobs designed to make their superiors feel important. An example of this could be a start-up business which hires a receptionist to add a perception of prestige, when in reality the existing members could easily manage the front desk, leading to a very bored receptionist who is ultimately paid to sit around.
- ‘Goons’ are people who are employed purely to oppose the goons of other companies, e.g. a lobbyist who is employed to lobby for a particular policy that an opposing party wishes to repeal, using lobbyists.
- ‘Duct tapers’ are employed to provide temporary solutions to issues that really require a permanent fix, like the guy who’s paid by the hour to empty the bucket that collects rainwater from the broken roof, rather than actually fixing the roof (and saving a great deal of money in the process).
- The function of ‘box tickers’ is to create the illusion that progress is being made. These are the project supervisors, the corporate compliance officers, and the editorial standards analysts. (I made that last one up, but you didn’t notice because it appears specific enough to serve a purpose which nobody is quite sure matters.)
- Lastly, we have ‘taskmasters’, those who create work for people who don’t need it: the people who come to the office to give talks about how work can be made more efficient, compartmentalising the workday, using a certain chart, how to be a more persuasive leader, and so on.
Being an anarchist, David Graeber didn’t shy away from critiquing the societal conditions that led to this phenomenon, claiming that a lot of these jobs were a result of ‘managerial feudalism’ wherein managers, consciously or not, validate their positions of power by saturating their workplaces with leagues of ‘underlings.’ He also points towards a puritan-capitalist work ethic, the commonly held notion that to labour is to earn the right to exist, and that self-worth is intrinsically tied to the amount of suffering one endures on a daily basis in the form of work. This holds true even when both the worker and the employer recognise that the worker’s job is pointless. A subsection of our nation’s culture towards feeling a disdain, even a disgust in many cases, towards those who are unable to work, and require the aid of the welfare state to survive, irreverently supports this notion. Graeber’s ideology detests this way of thinking, so much so that he characterises it as a “profound psychological violence” to hold one’s humanity to such an arbitrary degree, especially when one’s labour serves no material purpose.
He continues to add that this issue is not part of mainstream political discourse, because it is in the interest of political parties to aggrandise themselves with achievements like “50,000 new jobs created”, rather than ensuring these jobs are fulfilling or necessary. Furthermore, as a marker of Graeber’s more revolutionary side: “Populations occupied with busywork have less time to revolt.”
The answer? Universal Basic Income
Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become increasingly popular in recent years, following a string of promising case studies in Scandinavia and the warm reception of Democratic Party candidate Andrew Yang’s platform. The idea is that every member of society would be given a basic income, enough to cover the most rudimentary costs of living, so that work becomes a voluntary endeavour, rather than one undertaken to prevent homelessness or starvation. Graeber argues that work would be incentivised by the collective good of one’s community, or to better oneself, and that as such, work would become even more productive than the current system, where work is merely a method of self-preservation.
The publishing of David Graeber’s original article took the world by storm. It was translated into twelve different languages and prompted thousands of people to acknowledge that their jobs served absolutely no purpose. Graeber’s book, published in 2018, rather comically shares many of these testimonies, suggesting that perhaps ‘bull**** jobs’ are more commonplace than we could have ever imagined.
What would you do with your time if a UBI brought about a 15-hour work week? Would you spend your free time on recreation and leisure, or voluntarily work to better yourself and your general situation?