8 April 2022
The idea of bullshit jobs is not new. It comes from a book in 2018.
However, with employment supposedly doing well, largely because we have excluded guest workers due to Covid, it is worth looking at how many jobs are actually needed.
Everyone needs something to do and a reasonable income to live on. The status of having a job relates generally to its perceived income, though there is some ‘doing good’ status associated with jobs like nursing despite their being chronically underpaid.
But technology replacing people has not brought the expected benefits because there seems no plan to spread the benefits evenly, or look at whether what is being done has any social utility. Many jobs that need doing are not done. Many people who want to work cannot, yet much energy and money is spent doing useless things.
I waste about 80% of my time as I treat Workers Comp and CTP injuries. About 20% of my time is deciding what treatment is needed, and about 80% filling in paperwork or writing reports to try to get the treatments paid for. On the other side there are a phalanx of clerks trying not to pay and to transfer the costs elsewhere. (i.e. to Private Health Insurance, Medicare or the patient themselves). Many doctors and lawyers also strive mightily in this unproductive area. The bottom line is that while the overheads of Medicare are about 4.5%, the overheads of CTP are close to 50%,; i.e half the money goes in processing or disputing claims or in profits for the companies indulging in this nonsense. And since many patients often cannot get the treatment or suffer long delays because of their efforts, it is a really bad use of human energy.
Someone needs to look hard at what we do and where the benefits go. Assuming that ‘the market’ will fix it is about as sensible as saying that ‘God’ will fix it, and is usually espoused with the same uncritical zeal.
Here is Wikipedia summary of the book:
In Bullshit Jobs, American anthropologist David Graeber posits that the productivity benefits of automation have not led to a 15-hour workweek, as predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, but instead to “bullshit jobs”: “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.” While these jobs can offer good compensation and ample free time, Graeber holds that the pointlessness of the work grates at their humanity and creates a “profound psychological violence”.
The author contends that more than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and, as he describes, five types of entirely pointless jobs:
flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, store greeters, makers of websites whose sites neglect ease of use and speed for looks;
goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists, community managers;
duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing bloated code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;
box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers, quality service managers;
taskmasters, who create extra work for those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.
Graeber argues that these jobs are largely in the private sector despite the idea that market competition would root out such inefficiencies. In companies, he concludes that the rise of service sector jobs owes less to economic need than to “managerial feudalism”, in which employers need underlings in order to feel important and maintain competitive status and power. In society, he credits the Puritan-capitalist work ethic for making the labor of capitalism into religious duty: that workers did not reap advances in productivity as a reduced workday because, as a societal norm, they believe that work determines their self-worth, even as they find that work pointless. Graeber describes this cycle as “profound psychological violence” and “a scar across our collective soul”. Graeber suggests that one of the challenges to confronting our feelings about bullshit jobs is a lack of a behavioral script in much the same way that people are unsure of how to feel if they are the object of unrequited love. In turn, rather than correcting this system, Graeber writes, individuals attack those whose jobs are innately fulfilling.
Graeber holds that work as a source of virtue is a recent idea, that work was disdained by the aristocracy in classical times, but inverted as virtuous through then-radical philosophers like John Locke. The Puritan idea of virtue through suffering justified the toil of the working classes as noble. And so, Graeber continues, bullshit jobs justify contemporary patterns of living: that the pains of dull work are suitable justification for the ability to fulfill consumer desires, and that fulfilling those desires is indeed the reward for suffering through pointless work. Accordingly, over time, the prosperity extracted from technological advances has been reinvested into industry and consumer growth for its own sake rather than the purchase of additional leisure time from work. Bullshit jobs also serve political ends, in which political parties are more concerned about having jobs than whether the jobs are fulfilling. In addition, he contends, populations occupied with busy work have less time to revolt.
As a potential solution, Graeber suggests universal basic income, a livable benefit paid to all, without qualification, which would let people work at their leisure. The author credits a natural human work cycle of cramming and slacking as the most productive way to work, as farmers, fishers, warriors, and novelists vary in the rigor of work based on the need for productivity, not the standard working hours, which can appear arbitrary when compared to cycles of productivity. Graeber contends that time not spent pursuing pointless work could instead be spent pursuing creative activities.