Imagine, if you will, that all the people from a certain profession were to disappear as if by magic. It is a thought experiment introduced by American anthropologist David Graeber in his essay On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.
What if nurses, garbagemen or car mechanics vanish? Zap! It would be a catastrophe. “A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble. Even a world without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place.
“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.)”
Graeber believes that it’s actually quite odd that we’re all so busy. Automation was supposed to do all the work for us, wasn’t it? “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”
Graeber is a genuine anarcho-communist who was involved in Occupy Wall Street, and the person who came up with the slogan “We are the 99%”. His analysis – which he has elaborated in his book Bullshit Jobs: a Theory – is that the system exists for political reasons. If we’re all busy, we won’t rebel.
Whether that is the right conclusion or not is not something we’ll discuss here, but the notion of senseless jobs has struck a chord. Just talk to anyone at a party, and he or she will be eager to agree that while he or she is usefully employed, there are plenty of other people at his or her office whose jobs are a waste of time. The bean counters, the desk jockeys, the bureaucracy that’s expanding to meet the demands of the expanding bureaucracy.
And then there are the jobs that only exist because other people who are too busy with their own bullshit jobs: dog groomers, personal shoppers and 24-hour pizza-delivery people. You start to wonder just how many jobs are worthwhile.
“Ah well”, economist Max van Lent responds: “There’s nothing more fun at a party than complaining about your job. Graeber’s claims are mainly founded on anecdotes. He tries to avoid numbers in his book, and the figures he does mention are distorted. For instance, he cites a survey in which people were asked how important they believed their job was – but that’s not the same as social relevance.” Van Lent and his colleague Robert Dur from Erasmus University went in search of better figures.
It’s quite hard to decide what’s a bullshit job and what’s not; many people might say that this category covers “anarchist anthropologist”.
You could, at least, find out how many people believe their own employment is bullshit, which is worth a study even if you don’t immediately believe that such jobs are the result of nefarious capitalism. Let’s say that “large swathes of the population are employed in jobs which they believe are unnecessary” as Graeber claims. If they’re right, it’s a bad thing, because it would mean that the human race is wasting time and money on an enormous scale. If they’re wrong, it’s bad too, because in that case many people are unhappy for no reason, and it also would affect labour productivity. So, the question is: how many people believe their job is senseless?
The economists studied the International Social Survey Programme, a recurrent international survey containing questions on social-scientific themes. The last edition alone, which dates from 2015, has 27,000 respondents. “That data is available, no problem. In theory, Graeber could have consulted it for his book”, Van Lent says. One of the questions all those people were asked is: ‘Is my job useful to society?’
“That is, of course, always open to different interpretations”, Van Lent acknowledges. “Someone might think: ‘Yes, because someone’s paying me and I’m a part of society., too’ Or: ‘Yes, because I pay tax on my income and that money benefits society.’
But as it is, the figures show that not everyone thinks that way. Connoisseurs can check the numbers in the professional journal Industrial Relations.
17 per cent of the people questioned didn’t answer while another 8 per cent admitted that their jobs did not contribute to a better society. That group is not equally divided among professions. The public sector scores better than the business community. None of the nurses, firemen or police who were asked believes their jobs are bullshit. The high percentages were in fact among factory workers, people in sales and PR and those who are “artistic, cultural and cooking associate professionals”, which does indeed sound rather bullshitty.
Van Lent and Dur also investigated how bad the respondents thought it was to have a bullshit job. There were few surprises: people who don’t actually care whether job is useful or not are more likely to have a job of which they themselves admit it is bullshit.
“Although it’s striking that we haven’t found any evidence that people with senseless jobs are financially compensated for the fact that they have a useless job.”
You can look at the most important result in two ways. On the one hand, only one in twelve people believe their jobs are bovine excrement, which is much less then the thirty to forty per cent maintained by Graeber. The other view sees one in four people who are not convinced that their jobs have meaning.
“That’s quite a lot, even if it is much lower than the numbers given by Graeber in his book, and that means that there is still a percentage that doesn’t mind”, Van Lent continues. “I personally think it’s connected to the fact that jobs are becoming more and more specialised, so employees are losing their connection to the products, although they are actually helping to make them. For instance, people who work on conveyor belts are quite high up in the survey. Even though they make real, tangible stuff, they can’t see what they’re producing any more. Similarly, people who do administrative work enable other people to have more time for their core jobs, such as research or teaching. Specialising means that useful work suddenly doesn’t seem useful anymore.”
He suspects that part of the solution might be found right there.
“Employers can demonstrate the importance of jobs. Take the man at the conveyor belt to see the beautiful cars he helped build. Put a chef in an open kitchen so he or she can see what people do with their food. I’m not saying that bullshit jobs don’t exist and I’m not denying that sometimes there’s too much paperwork n the world, but there really isn’t a mysterious puppet master who makes extra work. The people who do those jobs are generally there for the rest of us.”