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.