The Cost of Pointless Work

In an interview between David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Economist Graeber shares his views on pointless jobs like “one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist.

That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place. Something like 37-40% of workers according to surveys say their jobs make no difference. Insofar as there’s anything really radical about the book, it’s not to observe that many people feel that way, but simply to say we should proceed on the assumption that for the most part, people’s self-assessments are largely correct. Their jobs really are just as pointless as they think they are”. In 2013 Graeber made headlines after he published an essay on the prevalence of work that had no social or economic reason to exist, which he called “bullshit jobs”. The wide attention seemed to confirm his thesis. He has since written a book on the subject, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He adds, “if my own research is anything to go by, bullshit jobs concentrate not so much in services as in clerical, administrative, managerial, and supervisory roles. A lot of workers in middle management, PR, human resources, a lot of brand managers, creative vice presidents, financial consultants, compliance workers, feel their jobs are pointless, but also many people in fields like corporate law or telemarketing.” Some thought-provoking quotes: • “It’s not at all uncommon for the same executives who pride themselves on downsizing and speed-ups on the shop floor, or in delivery and so forth, to use the money saved at least in part to fill their offices with feudal retinues of basically useless flunkies. They have whole teams of people who are just there, for instance, to design the graphics for their reports, write accolades for in-house magazines no one reads, or in many cases, who aren’t really doing anything at all, just making cat memes all day or playing computer games. But they are kept on because the prestige and even sometimes the salary of any given manager is measured by how many people he has working under him.”

• “Executives who pride themselves on downsizing use the money saved to fill their offices with feudal retinues of useless flunkies. The more a company’s profits are derived from finance rather than from actually making and selling anything, the more this tends to be true. I call it “managerial feudalism.” But it’s not just the FIRE [financial, insurance and real estate] sector: you have a similar infestation of intermediary ranks in the creative industries as well. They keep adding new managerial positions in between the people producing stuff and the guys ultimately paying for it, often whose only role is to sit around all day trying to sell things to each other. Health and education are equally hard hit: managers now feel they need to each have their little squadron of assistants, who often have nothing to do, so they end up making up new exotic forms of paperwork for the teachers, doctors, nurses… who thus have ever less time to actually teach or treat or care for anyone.”

• Bullshit jobs have contributed to populism and polarisation. Much of the rancour directed at the liberal elite is based on resentment of those working-class people see as having effectively grabbed all the jobs where you’ll actually get paid well to do something that’s both fun and creative, but also, obviously benefits society. If you can’t afford to send your kid to a top college and then support them for 2-3 years doing unpaid internships in some place like New York or San Francisco, forget it, you’re locked out. There is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others and remuneration. For everybody else, unless you get very lucky, your choices are largely limited to two options. You can get a basically bullshit job, which will pay the rent but leave you wracked with the guilty feeling that you are being forced, against your will, to be a fraud and a parasite. Or, you can get a helpful, useful job taking care of people, making or moving or maintaining things that people want or need – but then, likely you will be paid so little you won’t be able to take care of your own family.”

• “Those in the largely pointless jobs secretly resent teachers or even auto workers, who actually get to do something useful, and feel it’s outrageous when they demand nice salaries and health care and paid vacations too. Working class people who get to do mostly useful things, resent the liberal elite who grabbed all the useful or beneficial work which actually does pay well and treats you with dignity and respect.”

• “Everyone hates the political class who they see as basically a bunch of crooks. But all the other resentments make it very difficult for anyone to get together to do anything about it. To a large extent, our societies have come to be held together by envy and resentment: not envy of the rich, but in many cases, envy of those who are seen as in some ways morally superior, or resentment of those who claim moral superiority but who are seen as hypocritical.”

• As Dostoevsky said somewhere: “if you want to totally destroy a prisoner psychologically, just make them dig a hole and fill it in again, over and over, all day long – and in some gulags, they actually tried that out as a form of torture and he was right, it worked. It drove people completely crazy. I think people can put up with even boring work if they know there’s a good reason to be doing it. It’s not that people want to work; it’s that people want to feel they are transforming the world in a way that makes a positive difference.”

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