NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Nearly ninety years ago, economist John Maynard Keynes warned darkly about widespread “technological unemployment” – a condition which would replace human workers faster than it could find new uses for them. Looking at the low and falling jobless rates in large economies like the United States and Britain, it would be easy to assume he was wrong. But there may be an alternative explanation. Maybe jobs didn’t disappear as industry advanced, but just turned to bullshit.
Such is the central thesis of David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”, based on an essay published in the radical magazine Strike! in 2013. The anthropologist tackles one of the questions about labour markets that governments and statistics bureaus have never quite answered. Namely, could an unfulfilling, soulless job be worse than not having one at all? Of the 164,000 non-farming jobs that the American economy added in April, say, how many gave their occupant a sense of purpose, or made the world a better place? And if few, why does society tolerate so much wasted time and effort?
The book’s main contribution is its highly entertaining definition of terms. A bullshit job is a paid role that’s “so completely, pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” – even though the incumbent will typically pretend that’s not the case. Qualifying positions are numerous, from the bored receptionist whose main job is to wind up a grandfather clock once a week, to the unhappy employee in a warehouse full of clown noses. Anyone who works in public relations, or has “strategic” in their title, automatically joins the club.
The taxonomy gets more sophisticated as these thankless roles split into five archetypes: the duct tapers, the goons, the flunkies, box tickers and task masters. Graeber interviews examples of each. Some jobs derive their bullshitness from involving long stretches of dead time; others are busy but unproductive. There are “mostly bullshit” jobs and “partly bullshit” jobs. And then there are the plain old “shit jobs”, like cleaning toilets, which while horrible are useful. Even these can exist in companies that are, at risk of overusing the word, bullshit.
The existence of these soul-sucking forms of employment, which range from the menial to the high-level but share a lack of useful tangible outcomes, is a challenge for economists. In an efficient world, they wouldn’t exist – or would be under extreme pressure from cost-conscious company bosses. Yet they undeniably persist and proliferate. Graeber claims that as many as two jobs in five are basically meaningless. His list of reasons is compelling, if hard to verify.
One of the most convincing is the government obsession with pursuing full employment at all costs. That in turn comes from the Puritan idea that not working is somehow wicked, or that “idle hands knit the devil’s jumper”. A related idea, also religious in its origins, is that joyless work somehow completes a person. Graeber argues that is why genuinely useful jobs like nursing and teaching are badly paid. In this perverse society, the “psychological violence” of knowing a job is utterly pointless justifies it carrying a generous salary. Good jobs, on the other hand, bring their own reward.
Some blame may lie with the financial sector, which by Graeber’s account has ruined everything by filling economies with “smoke and mirrors”, and created countless dehumanizing jobs in related “information services”. He also reserves a modicum of vitriol for the “liberal elites” - defined as “the sort of people who live in coastal cities” - who have staked out the few professions, like movie star or elite journalist, that combine high pay with being interesting.
From thence, mutual hatred flows. Holders of pointless jobs disdain those who do helpful jobs because they envy the sense of purpose. That loathing is reciprocated. And everybody dislikes the liberal elites. Hence, the book argues, the discontent that drove the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. That kind of theory-of-everything sprawl is where “Bullshit Jobs” loses its way. Late in the book, Graeber declares himself an anarchist in favour of the dismantling of the nation state, which may distance him from many of his readers.
Unfortunately, Graeber also falls into the trap of trying to find a solution. His proffered answer to bullshitization is a “universal basic income”: pay everyone a regular sum just for being alive, and let them decide what to do with their time. That’s not a new idea – it’s supported by investor Bill Gross and electric car maker Elon Musk, and just about anyone else who wants to see governments reduced to only the simplest of functions.
Would it work? That’s anyone’s guess. Finland tried a limited experiment, which its finance minister suggested would not be extended, according to a recent interview in the Financial Times. The scheme had attracted both fanatical supporters, who believe unconditional transfers are a necessity as robots start to steal jobs, and detractors who fear handouts will cause inertia, budget blowouts and intellectual stagnation. The Finnish experiment was just too small and too complex. For now, a universal income probably isn’t the answer to all those bullshit jobs. Nonetheless, the passion on both sides of the debate suggests Graeber is asking the right question.
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