The rise and rise of “bullshit jobs”

By Leith van Onselen

Back in the early-1930s, renowned economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that technical innovations and rising productivity would mean that advanced country workers would be able to work only 15 hours a week and still enjoy rising living standards.

Back in 2013, David Graeber achieved international notoriety when he penned a highly amusing, but also somewhat depressing article, explaining why Keynes’ prophecy had not come true and instead many of us find ourselves working a range of meaningless “bullshit jobs” that we hate:

…technology has been marshaled, 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.

…productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away…

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector…

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.

As for the reasons behind these “bullshit jobs”, according to Graeber:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger…

Personally, I never agreed with the argument that it is one great ruling class conspiracy, but rather a symptom of those within organisations and government either trying to make themselves relevant or increase their power base, and in the process dreaming up new pointless rules and regulations for others to follow.

Still, it was a highly enlightening and humorous article that rang true with my experiences working in both the public service (the Australian and Victorian treasuries), as well as in corporations (Ford Credit and Goldman Sachs).

Earlier this month, Bloomberg returned to the “bullshit jobs” theme with the following:

…much of economic reality is shaped by jockeying for power and status and serves no economic function at all.

Of course, the idea that business might be wasteful isn’t new. Thirty years ago, economist William Baumol suggested that the future of capitalism might well belong to unproductive businesses, which use power and influence to profit without necessarily benefiting society. He worried about the rise of “unproductive entrepreneurs” who buy up rivals or use regulations to stifle competition, thriving as parasites on productive parts of the economy.

…a lot of today’s business seems to aim less to produce economic value than to grab a bigger share of existing wealth. MIT economist Xavier Gabaix has shown that the wealthiest individuals in recent years really have skewed the playing field in their favour, finding ways – such as access to better information, legal or tax planning services – to capture more of the profits coming from productive work…

A 2015 UK survey found that 37 per cent of people felt their jobs “did not make a meaningful contribution to the world,” and a later poll in the Netherlands found 40 per cent saying the same thing…

They aren’t in teaching, cleaning, garbage collecting or firefighting, but seem mostly to be in the professional services sector… they work in pointless jobs which could be eliminated with absolutely no loss to society – and they’ve come mostly from human resources, public relations, lobbying or telemarketing, or in finance and banking, consulting, management and corporate law…

The result is a proliferation of jobs that actually serve very little if any economic function, and only make sense from the perspective of rent seeking and power relations.

…perhaps slowing productivity shouldn’t be a surprise. They may only reflect an approach based solely on profit maximisation, rather than an authentic effort to solve human problems.

As Adam Creighton wrote last year, Australia too has experienced an explosion of ‘bullshit’ jobs:

The collapse of repetitive manufacturing jobs has paved the way for service jobs that improve our quality of life. Massage and beauty therapists, aged and disabled carers, fitness ­instructors and “personal care consultants” are among the 19 fastest growing jobs in Australia since 1987 — those whose share of the Australian workforce has more than ­tripled.

But Graeber’s “bullshit” jobs figure prominently, too, underpinning much of the celebrated growth of “professional services and management”. Take the 23,000-strong army of “policy ­analysts”, for ­instance; their share has almost quintupled since 1987 despite ­debatable progress on ­actual policy. “Nurse managers” and “nurse educators” have grown about four times as fast as the number of nurses in that period. “Advertising and marketing professionals”, whose output Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets in the 1930s quaintly thought should be ­excluded from gross domestic product, have grown 252 per cent.

…In fact, last week’s national ­accounts showed the financial ­services sector crept up to 9 per cent of GDP in March, the highest share ever (double its share in the 1970s), and by far the largest of the 19 sectors the Australian Bureau of Statistics tracks (more than retail and wholesale trade combined). Given almost $1 in every $10 spent now goes to banking, it’s no surprise that ­financial brokers, dealers and ­investment managers are among the fastest growing occupations since the 80s, more than tripling their shares of the workforce. In an earlier, more discriminating era, it might have been thought odd, even problematic, that the part of the economy meant to be an intermediary had grown so huge.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however. Many of the manual jobs that have been replaced by technology and robots were downright tedious and often dangerous, and arguably the administration jobs that have replaced them – the 21st century equivalent of last century’s production lines – are safer and easier. Real wages and living standards are arguably higher for lower paid workers today than were 70 years ago, even if inequality has risen.

That said, I strongly believe that most people work longer hours than they should and consume too much, and many would benefit from increased free time to spend with family or relaxing. It is also a reason why I am such a strong advocate for more affordable housing. It would be a lot easier for people to cut back on work if they weren’t burdened paying-off some of the world’s biggest mortgages or paying high rents.

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    • This is just another version of Universal Basic Income they’ll need to stop civil reactions when the robot software takes the middle class jobs.
      During the cold war to stop revolutions , and with strong unions, a good income was allowed to basic workers.
      Now a good income is distributed to the marketing jobs to distribute late stage capitalism, minimum enough to stop civil reaction to the 1% getting all the money. Civil reactions would cause a high cost, – like in the third world you can see in Asia or of South America the rich would need to spend 10% of their income on protection, alarms, etc. Easier to let some money trickle down to the middle class and the minimum possible to the working class.

      • when the robot software takes the middle class jobs.

        Software can’t replace making whoever’s sitting in the corner office feel special and important.

      • Perhaps the psychology of empire building will create some jobs , doing a bit of the function of UBI to distribute some money. Also they will have to pay ok, as the corner office guy has to justify getting double the salary of the others in the office.

  1. ceo of a bank and pm or, even mp i guess, are great examples of bs jobs, could throw in asic and apra too…

  2. I think many people who do bullshit jobs don’t even spend much of their actual working hours doing the job. Probably half of the time is spent chatting to colleagues, surfing the web, etc…

    I don’t know if humans are wired to spend so much time not working tbh. It’s like physical exercise in a way, if you don’t do it regularly you’re body starts to stagnate, you feel less able to do things etc. Work is kind of the same way for the brain I think.

    I think also, for a lot of people I’ve met in my life, work is really all they know and what defines them. They actually need to work 60 hours or more a week. I wonder what percentage of the overall workforce this. I feel like it is probably quite high.

    • All that said, I mostly agree with the general sentiment in the article.

      I even wonder if 30 year mortgages as a concept will still be viable in the 21st century considering the changing nature of work.

      • I think the number of jobs held by 40 years is around 11, hence 30 year mortgages seem hard to risk weigh properly. Especially considering trends for those 40+ years in finding employment on par with past, normally a significant hair cut, after imo a period of loss income.

        Had this convo post GFC with some RE sales people and whilst I could see they knew the reality of it, ultimately their income was dependent on prices staying upwards.

  3. haha – don’t let the secret out! 50% of most Westerners working lives is BS!

    You know, the idea of elites and workers does not have to be this conspiracy theory, it’s just the way humans organise themselves in large social groups. Over and over again, down through history, in all types of cultures, we grow great civilisations around ruling classes and then those civilisations become decadent and collapse – usually with some form of populism or kickback against the elites.

    As for the reset coming, as mentioned above, I used to think it would be a fast thing but now I realise it will only be seen as fast historically. I’m sure we are in the reset now – it will have some spasmodic and intense moments – but make no mistake, society is crumbling. All you have to do is look at the rise in graffiti and collapse of our infrastructure over the last 30-40 years.

    • The Pharoahs were quite effective autocrats – they created jobs building giant pyramids to occupy and pay the workers to create a middle class.

  4. I suspect you underestimate the appeal of the phrase “something needs to be done about…” to average Aussies.
    From my experience most Aussies are convinced that a better world is possible if we can just tick enough boxes and pass the right regulations, unfortunately my experience suggests otherwise. We pass regulations that serve only to showcase our collective stupidity and then create “jobs” to ensure our new regulations are followed. Seen as somewhat of an outsider it’s nothing short of bizarre, it’s a crazy dance that only a local could love.

  5. That’s why we have so many lawyers in Parliament. To make the laws that create jobs for us all.

    It’s a virtuous cycle.

  6. Given that bogans think no job is pointless, I came up with pointless jobs for skippy’s job guarantee:

    Get unemployed voters to come into a building, send 6 utterly meaningless faxes per hour, and go home.

    The ALP can insist that the faxes being received by the ATO are useful. 😉

    • As a leftie I think you would be pro cleaning up the enviroment or say people engaging in doing the field work to establish a deep data base which would assist in establishing policy, too effect positive changes in both public and private sector activities to these ends.

      Hay its not like some tradie that gets a prang and then because of LIT hours sorts business cards alphabetically so the company keeps a good report.

      P.S. you should know if you studied the papers on a JG don’t have anything to do with force.

  7. Combined with BS Hobbies, spare time activities, and other time wasters, most people’s lives are 80+% BS…

    ……Yes. comments sections are BS too!

    And somehow it all just works

  8. safety of bullshit jobs has been overseen because they affect health of people even more than hard labour (both physical health causing epidemics of chronic diseases like diabetes and mental health causing great internal suffering )