Future of work: Re-defining work (Part 2: Bullshit jobs and post-work)
Phuah Eng Chye (10 November 2018)
Discussions on work is wide-ranging and, in this article, I have focused on two topics on the definition of work. The first relates to scepticism on the value of jobs. I have used David Graeber’s insightful article “On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs” as the basis for the discussion. The second is based on Andy Beckett’s review of issues relating to the failing ability of work to meet social needs and the difficulty of moving to a world freed from work.
David Graeber notes that John Maynard Keynes had predicted technological advance would reduce the work week to 15 hours by the millennium. “Yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, 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”.
He points out this isn’t due to a deliberate choice to forgo leisure in favour of consumption. “Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ’20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers…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…productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away…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. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones”.
David Graeber emphasises “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. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens. While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and 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”.
David Graeber suggests the motivation “clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political”; arguing that “the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing” is a convenient belief that allows the ruling class to exercise control over the population. In this context, there is no “objective measure of social value” in determining which jobs are necessary and which constitutes “wasteful social expenditure”.
He explains “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 immediate and catastrophic…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. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.)” Hence, “this is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism…when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people.
David Graeber concludes that “if someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value…it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days”.
Andy Beckett takes a different tack on the definition of work. Andy Beckett notes “the idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed”. “In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an age of leisure and abundance, in which people might work 15 hours a week…In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared: The abolition of work is a process already underway…The manner in which [it] is to be managed…constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”
But since the 1980s, “the aggressively pro-business governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan strengthened the power of employers, and used welfare cuts and moralistic rhetoric to create a much harsher environment for people without jobs”. Andy Beckett observes that “work is the master of the modern world” where “hard-working families are idealised by politicians…Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure… In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences
This leads to increasing scepticism about the benefits of work to society. “Yet work is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways”. “As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes…As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners…work is increasingly precarious…As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century…work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home…Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging…Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health” and “work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little…vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations…The crisis of work is also a crisis of home”.
Andy Beckett asks “we know work’s multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?” This has given rise to post-work advocates who visualise “a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater.” Post-work attempts to offer “enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed”. Hence, post-work advocates generally favour universal basic income as a backstop to diminishing employment or the shortening of working hours as a means to allocate work more widely. The post-work scenarios are varied and feature elements of artisan craft, housework, elderly care and community activities as substitutes for work.
However, he notes Frederick Harry Pitts finds it suspicious “how closely the life post-workists envisage – creative, collaborative, high-minded – resembles the life they already live…argues that post-work’s optimistic visions can be a way of avoiding questions about power in the world. A post-work society is meant to resolve conflicts between different economic interest groups – that’s part of its appeal…the hope that exploitation can finally be ended by getting rid of work altogether. He says this is both defeatist and naive: Struggles between economic interest groups can’t ever be entirely resolved.”
David Frayne points out, “in some ways, we’re already in a post-work society. But it’s a dystopic one. Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn – the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust…There is lots of worklessness, he says, but with no social policies to dignify it.”
These articles provide some useful insights. First, it highlights there may be undue pessimism on the threat technology is posing to jobs. The existence of many bullshit jobs, as highlighted by David Graeber, suggests limitless possibilities for creating work by the private or public sectors. The advent of robots and AI actually increases the freedom to be more creative on defining work.
Second, the rising use of information seems to have weakened the linkages between production and work. If, in the past, technology was used to help increase production, going forward the logic can be reversed to build vibrant work eco-systems around technology. One example is the thriving video gaming industry. More conscious efforts are required to use technology to create work but this would require consciously breaking the mental habit of linking work with production.
Third, these arguments not only reaffirm that the concept of productivity is over-rated but that it is difficult to co-relate jobs with value. In particular, as David Garber highlights, highly-paid work need not be meaningful and meaningful work may not be paid the income it deserves. In addition, work is no longer distinct and overlaps into leisure, entertainment, housework and information. Similarly, work and income may be tied, as David Garber suggests, to a form of managerial feudalism or valued based on social status.
Fourth, as Andy Beckett suggests, not only is the perception that only hard work can solve societal problems misplaced, but that the fetish of hard work may be making problems worse. In this context, one notable feature of technology is that it seems to be increasing rather than reducing the intensity of work. As Charles Goldfinger suggests, intangibility causes work to become demand-driven and performance-linked; leaving us with less free time.
Overall, views on work are heavily influenced by personal experiences and deep-rooted beliefs. But it is important these beliefs are subjected to robust challenges such as whether, in the future, we can pass on the work we don’t like to intelligent machines while retaining or creating additional work that give meaning and dignity to individuals. A useful starting point is to differentiate between good jobs and bad jobs.
Andy Beckett (19 January 2018) “Post-work: The radical idea of a world without jobs”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/19/post-work-the-radical-idea-of-a-world-without-jobs
David Graeber (17 August 2013) “On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs”. Strike Magazine Issue 3. http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/
Phuah Eng Chye (11 August 2018) “Future of work: The effect of intangibility.” Economicsofinformationsociety.com. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/future-of-work-the-effect-of-intangibility-on-work/
 From Andy Beckett’s article.
 From Andy Beckett’s article.
 The notion that “information is inherently incestuous; its producers are also its consumers” highlighted by Charles Goldfinger will be discussed in greater detail in a later article.
 Phuah Eng Chye “Future of work: The effect of intangibility.”