Has Anyone Noticed That Most New Jobs Suck?

 I’m going to reverse my normal convention when I have a cross post but have something to add. Here I first offer you a MacroBusiness post (which in the layered ways of the Web relies heavily on an article by David Graeber) and natter afterwards.

By Leith van Onselen, Chief Economist of Macro Investor, Australia’s independent investment newsletter covering trades, stocks, property and yield. You can follow him on Twitter at @leithvo. Cross posted from MacroBusiness

Back in the early-1930s, renowned economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that technical innovations and rising productivity would mean that advanced country workers would be able to work only 15 hours and still enjoy rising living standards.

In a highly amusing, but also somewhat depressing article in Strike! Magazine, David Graeber asks why Keynes’ prophecy has not come true and instead we find ourselves working a range of meaningless “bullshit jobs” that many of us hate:

There’s every reason to believe he [Keynes] was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Graeber goes on to describe how these so-called “bullshit jobs” are concentrated in “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers”:

Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away…

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations…

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.

As for the reasons behind these “bullshit jobs”, according to Graeber:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger…

My view is that there is light at the end of the tunnel in all of this. Many of the manual jobs that have been replaced by technology and robots were downright tedious and often dangerous, and arguably the administration jobs that have replaced them – the 21st century equivalent of last century’s production lines – are safer and easier. Real wages and living standards are arguably higher for lower paid workers today than were 70 years ago, even if inequality has risen.

That said, I strongly believe that most people work longer hours than they should and consume too much, and many would benefit from increased free time to spend with family or relaxing. It is also a reason why I am such a strong advocate for more affordable housing, principally through freeing-up the supply-side. It would be a lot easier for people to cut back on work if they weren’t burdened paying-off some of the world’s biggest mortgages or paying high rents.


Yves here. I disagree with almost all of this discussion.

First, if you look back historically, the idea that the lower classes needed to be kept busy for their own sake was presented in moralistic terms but was in fact ruthlessly economic. The whole point of making the peasants work instead of faff around and drink was to enable them to be exploited by the newly-emerging entrepreneurial class.

This section comes from important piece by Yasha Levine that summarized the book The Invention of Capitalism by economic historian Michael Perelman:

One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery…

Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.

“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’

Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.

Yves here. In other words, a big part of the capitalist exercise is to find or create workers to exploit. Graeber has the story backwards. The moral fable (idleness is bad for the perp and putting him to work is thus a moral undertaking) was not, as Graeber suggests, because lazy people are proto-insurrectionists. It is that people who are self-sufficient and have time on their hands on top of that drove the early capitalists nuts. They were exploitable resources lying fallow, no different to them than a gold vein in the next hill that the numbnick farmer/owner was unwilling to mine because he liked the view and was perfectly content grazing sheep.

A second problem with Graeber’s discussion is the idea that leisure is a good thing given how we now have society ordered in America> (trust me, this statement is not as nutty as it seems when put that baldly).

Keynes’ little problem in envisioning a future with comparatively little work in it (as in the remunerated and sometimes disagreeable sort) was that he was an upper-middle class Englishman whose idea of how the world should be ordered was based on growing up in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Aristocrats and the well educated believed in the importance of leisure (having free time and an interesting social circle was a class marker, to set them apart from the grubby shopkeeper or his more successful cousin, the striving industrialist). It’s important to recognized this deep-rooted difference in values, even in a society that led the Industrial Revolution, and how America has (remarkably) managed to impose some of its workaholism on much of the rest of the world. Here, for instance, is Wikipedia on de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

In America, in contrast, landed elites were less likely to pass on fortunes to a single child by the action of primogeniture, which meant that as time went by, large estates became broken up within a few generations which, in turn, made the children more equal overall….Overall, in the new democracies, hereditary fortunes became exceedingly difficult to secure and more people were forced to struggle for their own living.

This rapidly democratizing society, as Tocqueville understood it, had a population devoted to “middling” values which wanted to amass, through hard work, vast fortunes. In Tocqueville’s mind, this explained why America was so different from Europe. In Europe, he claimed, nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar, and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money; many were virtually guaranteed wealth and took it for granted. At the same time in America, workers would see people fashioned in exquisite attire and merely proclaim that through hard work they too would soon possess the fortune necessary to enjoy such luxuries.

So Americans have managed to wind up with the worst of all possible worlds. We’ve come to believe in the virtue of working hard, to believe the capitalist PR used to justify the enclosure movement and the reduction of independent peasants to wage slaves. Look at how hard people in the 1% or the 0.1% work. CEOs put in silly hours. So do hedgies and PE fund overlords. Now their well-paid subordinates may slog harder. However, their duties, like Machiavellian politics, hiring and firing, preparing for Important Meetings with Important People and Making Big Decisions, sure beat flipping burgers. But they don’t enjoy Keynes’ leisure either.

I submit the problem comes from our American version of capitalism. Paul Krugman a few years back took issue with how US pundits often demonized French economic performance. Krugman said it was simple: we preferred to consume houses. They preferred to consume vacations. By contrast, my impression is few really rich Americans are good at loafing (by contrast, in my one day in Monaco, it seemed that’s the only thing that that sort of international rich tax evader did). They seem to need to defend the legitimacy of their elite standing by Doing Stuff (which they often confuse with Doing Good).

Now to the point about bullshit jobs. What exactly is a bullshit job? Well, it’s not clearly defined, but it’s the opposite of “pursu[ing] their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas.”

I posit that this is simply Graeber’s class bias showing. He’s an academic and a member of what is commonly referred to as the creative classes. Ergo, just as Keynes thought everyone should have a life like his (but with more time for drinks and conversation with his intellectual set) so too Graeber believes that most people are keen to let their inner artist out. Yet if you take Myers-Briggs at all seriously (it’s based on Jungian psychology), one of its polarities is “intuitive” versus “sensing”. Intuitive people are the creative types, they like hanging out with imaginative people and are impatient with procedures if they can see a faster way to get things done. By contrast, “sensing” types are literal-minded. They like step-by-step processes and are very uncomfortable with violating them (for instance, neither of my parents, both very good cooks, could imagine deviating from a recipe).

Now there is no denial that left unchecked, over time organizations generate more busywork. This insight goes back to C. Northcote Parkinson who observed that one of the two factors that made bureaucracies grow, regardless of whether their duties increased, was that officials make work for each other. Think of how much time in organizations is spent in meetings, communications, or politics.

But Graeber is basically arguing that certain types of work, such as administrativa or telemarketing, are inherently “bullshit”. I might be forced to concede on telemarketing, simply because there’s now so much going on I can’t imagine any telemarketer can actually get a human to answer the phone and talk to them. (Some of the sectors he points out as having exploded, such as financial services and health care administration, are direct or indirect beneficiaries looting, so we’ll leave them out, since as Simon Johnson has pointed out, average pay has also skyrocketed in financial service, so we don’t need to trouble ourselves overmuch about the quality of their work lives).

But again, I think he’s got the premises wrong. It’s not the job content but the job conditions. We’ve had a long-term project underway to take the dignity out of work in the US.

Look at how workers are bereft of dignity. It used to be that only factory workers punched a time clock. Most of them were (at least in the post war era) protected by unions, and there was some logic in the regimentation (factories are large complex operations where everyone needs to work in a coordinated manner. Downtime is expensive. So having mechanisms to pressure the workers to respect the demands of the work environment can be justified from an enterprise survival standpoint.

By contrast, all sorts of petty humiliations are foisted upon mid and low level office and retail workers, many of which simply seem to be to reinforce the internal hierarchy and remind the employee he has little power. Cube farms. Regimentation of work hours for the convenience of the bosses (when for many jobs, significant portions of the work can be done autonomously). Week to week changes in schedules for businesses that don’t have big changes in hours and are not at survival risk (McDonalds, Walmart and other big box retailers). While upper white collar workers now are allowed more latitude (but in return for being expected to be on call for extended hours), middle management, admin, and retail workers are subject to vastly more intensive supervision and productivity benchmarking, moving them towards the standing of early garment workers who were paid on piecework.

So I’d argue that the “bullshit” comes from the devolving worker-employer social contract, and not from the work itself. I enjoyed having a paper route when I was a kid. People really did expect to get their newspapers by a certain time so delivering it conscientiously made a difference to them and the newspaper. I made enough money as an early telemarketer that I thought it was OK (as it was tolerable as opposed to terrible, but that was also because people back then answered the phone and most of the time were pleasant even if they made it clear they weren’t going to talk to you). But perhaps more important, those jobs are bullshit not simply because managers often treat the people who work in those jobs as labor fodder, but people like Graeber look down on them. People in those positions are treated as having no or little status.

By contrast, when I lived in Australia, all the people who worked at checkouts in grocery stores seemed pretty happy. That was confirmed by a buddy taking a buyout from her Wall Street firm and working at the cheese counter at a major department store for four months before moving to New Zealand. She really enjoyed the job, the not having to worry when she left work, talking to customers about cheese and food, and having simple tasks she could do well. And even though the pay was much lower, she still could cover all her living expenses and have some leisure/play money left over. I attribute that to Australia having a high minimum wage and being fabulously egalitarian (the clientele at my pub ranged from an pensioner who could only afford one beer a month, former drug addicts who had become social workers and data entry clerks to a nationally famous radio host and the CEO of one of the 150 biggest companies).

Similarly, on a recent thread, one commentor seemed almost stunned at the idea of having all the students clean a school, as they do in Japan. I imagine that some of the surprise was that cleaning is regarded as menial work here, and in America parents would likely squawk if their precious children were made to stand in for janitors. But the reader seemed to be taken by the idea that cleaning a school would convey to the students that when they get it dirty, they are making work for people, which might be them in six months. But there’s another message, that the community take care of itself, and no work is too lowly.

I’ve done time in the New Age, and one of the groups I was involved with for a while had residential retreats. To keep the price down, the group leader would have the members of the group clean the bathrooms and do kitchen duty. This was on rotation, everyone was required to clean toilets and do dishes a certain number of times. I never minded it precisely because everyone did it, in fact, there’s a certain satisfaction in cleaning things that I found in that setting that is somehow missing in my normal life (probably because I am time stressed and “blogging” or “dealing with my out of control inbox” or “exercising” or “foraging” are all More Important than cleaning, so cleaning is low priority, steals time from those pressing tasks, and is therefore done by me infrequently and resentfully and is farmed out to a cleaning person who astonishingly enough seems happy to do the work).

Finally, and this may be a reflection of being too deeply acculturated as an American, lots of leisure does not sit well with many people. That may be due to the fact that societally many of us have shallow social networks and therefore not enough people to hang out with were we can play. I found this to be true in my consulting days. I’d get done with a project and have lots of time on my hands (you can only spend so much time marketing, and too much is counterproductive, it makes you look desperate). In New York, if you are a professional, saying you aren’t up to your eyeballs in work is tantamount to saying you are a loser. And busy professionals make for terrible friends, truth be told. They cancel appointments on no notice, which also means you can’t do anything that requires an advance commitment (forget about season tickets, for instance). And when you see your buddies, quite often they are so stressed that they spend a lot of the evening venting. That’s fine for good friends now and again, but when the bulk of your recreational life consists of playing amateur therapist, it can get tiring (particularly since nothing fundamental changes and you are left not knowing what to do with their frustration). And I was never willing to play the overbooking time, which meant I got less social activity than I wanted.

I did manage to find some fellow deviants to hang out with, but even so, it was not so hot having that much open time (and don’t say I should have travelled. The problem with being between projects is you have NO idea when the next one might come in, and you don’t want to give yourself presents in the form of costly trips unless you’ve had a a long enough run of consistent billings that you feel you are really ahead of the game economically). But I don’t thinks this is just personal or NYC. My great uncle, who was the biggest lobster buyer in Maine in his heyday (which I assume meant in the US too) also hauled traps and kept hauling traps a half day without a winch until he was 85 (he was mystified as to why he could no longer haul traps a full day). One of my father’s cousins is a nurse, still working close to a full schedule even though she is over 70 (she does not need the money and looks terrific for her age). By contrast, a lot of men get depressed when they retire because they don’t have hobbies or interests to occupy them (Graeber’s idea that they are bursting with creative projects that they would rather have been doing seems wanting in a lot of cases).

In general, people who work beyond retirement age have longer lifespans on average than people who don’t. Individuals who like their work, such as Federal judges, virtually have to be carried out feet first.

So the bullshit tasks are not intrinsically bullshit. Work is work because you are paid to do it. There’s a certain amount of coercion even if you pretend to like the work (talk to book authors, I doubt you will find many who say they love writing books. They are more likely to like having written a book, which is a different state of affairs). But my belief is that the “bullshit” that Graeber bemoans is simply another face of income disparity. As wage gaps widen, the people who do lesser-paid work are seen as having less intrinsic worth as humans. The not surprising corollary is anyone who has work that is stigmatizing, even if subtly (cube farms!) is likely to resent it.


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