One of the things my new book examines is the idea of what happens when jobs disappear through technological developments and other structural changes. In an interesting variation on the theme, David Graeber reckons they have already disappeared and that most of us are actually performing “bullshit jobs”.
Taking as his starting point the famous Keynes’ essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, in which the famous economist argues that in the future (that is, now) improvements in the world economy should mean will have to work no more than about fifteen hours a week, Graeber asks:
Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. 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.
So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). 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, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).
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, up to and including 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 deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
I’m not entirely convinced by the argument. As he himself says, ‘Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?”’
But still, there is a more than a modicum of good sense in what he says, isn’t there?
Anyway, regardless of what you think of his “bullshit jobs” thesis, one thing I do think he gets right is this: “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political.”
This is why I think so much of what I want to write about in this book is just that, the moral and philosophical considerations of what it means to live in a world where work is obsolete.