This Philosopher Thinks Most Jobs Are “BS”. Is He Right?
“Huge swaths of people spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” — David Graeber
There aren’t many anarchists in academia these days. The few that remain usually publish in obscurity or teach at lesser-known universities.
But then there’s David Graeber, an American professor at the London School of Economics. It’s a peculiar school for the firebrand leftie; most of his graduates enter corporate law, finance, and lobbying.
But then again, that’s probably why he loves it so much. It’s the perfect place for a guy like him to be a fly on the wall, soaking in the ridiculousness of it all.
Graeber, already famous for his leadership in the Occupy Wallstreet movement, was thrust into the spotlight once again for his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs where he argued that the world would be a much better place if those careers his students flocked to ceased to exist.
“It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”
It may seem hard to understand what Graeber means, of course, since we live in a capitalist society. Don’t all jobs have a purpose behind them? Someone else is paying for that job to be done, so it must be valuable!
Well, compare that quote to what he says about other lines of work.
“Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be catastrophic.”
Notice the difference between the two? One group (largely blue-collar workers) performs tasks essential to maintaining society — if they went on strike, the economy would be paralyzed.
But if most white collar workers went on strike, there would be few immediate consequences for society as a whole.
Jobs which have no direct benefit to society tend to be much more highly paid than jobs which are vital for everyday life to continue (farmers, garbage collectors, nurses, firefighters, loggers, fisherman, construction workers).
A skeptic could argue that those jobs require less specialization or skill to attain (any average joe could cut down a tree or pick up garbage), but bankers, marketers, and real estate agents need to spend years attaining a level of professional aptitude that the market rewards with higher pay.
That argument looks true at a surface level, but if you dive deeper it falls apart pretty quickly. First, not every blue collar job is low skilled — some require years of specialization and training to master (like firefighters, soldiers or nurses).
And many people don’t get white collar jobs because they are highly “skilled” but simply because they went through the necessary hoops to acquire the job (prestigious degree, internships, connections). And those hoops are much easier to clear for people born into wealthy families that can pay their tuition or give them connections — meaning it’s much more of a luck game than a merit one.
If you look at the day-to-day routine of many entry-level workers in highly paid white collar careers, it’s very clear that they spend most of their time doing petty tasks or “grunt work” designed to please their bosses rather than contribute highly valuable labor to a company.
In banking or consulting, for example, these tasks (like editing excel sheets to perfection or re-drafting a powerpoint slide for hours) are seen as annoying but necessary to advance one’s career or get the prized “exit op” for another firm.
In other words, the actual work of many of these white collar professionals is plainly useless to society and only useful in the advancement of their individual careers.
But why is there so much unnecessary work in corporations? Mostly because they are absurdly bureaucratic — managers like to employ more people than necessary and for longer amounts of time because it makes his or her department seem more important. Most of the work that employees do at these companies can be automated but isn’t because large bureaucracies do a terrible job at maximizing efficiency.
More and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.”
There’s also the moral element — that society is obsessed with the idea that “hard work” is good in and of itself, and that we must WORK! to be provided a living. Professionals are obsessed with the “Puritan work ethic” and sees stress as a status symbol rather than psychological torture or wasted time.
This ideology isn’t just shared by professionals, of course. It may partially explain why so many blue-collar Americans workers vote for Republicans who blast welfare recipients as leaches or why they support attacks against teachers unions for striking (how dare they stop working!).
In reality, however, only a select few benefit from an economy built on corporate bureaucracy and unequal pay.
There are two potential solutions to this. One is cliche but ultimately likely to happen. The other is obscure and would likely require revolution.
- Universal basic income
- A decentralized economy (turning businesses into worker-owned cooperatives)
The former would give workers the incentive to do work that is actually meaningful. The later would end the inefficiencies of large corporations (and thus bullshit jobs) because small organizations with elected management do a much better job and implementing work than hierarchical and impersonal ones do.
Modern workplaces, if they were classified as a form of government, would be dictatorships. Employees sign away their autonomy to a hierarchical system which passes instructions from the top-down. Bosses tell the employee what to do, how to do it, and extract metrics about their efficiency and productivity. If they fail, they can be terminated at any time.
Dictatorship is usually thought of as being the most efficient form of government. In theory, the head honcho says X, so X happens. No amount of political bickering, court challenges, or activism can get in his or her way.
A cursory look at most developing nations dispells this test. But does it make sense in the workplace?
In a survey of over 200,000 organizations, employees were asked which factors made them want to engage the most in their workplace.
The most commonly cited answer?
Camaraderie and peer motivation. (20%)
The least cited?
Positive supervisors and managers. (4%)
The vast majority of Americans are disengaged at work. Perhaps if they had greater freedom to control their work and were allowed to freely associate with their coworkers, instead of being fired for making small talk on assembly lines, we’d become a happier and more productive nation.