Simon & Schuster
333 pages; $27
What do all those people crowding into subway cars, sitting in rush-hour traffic and walking down city streets in business attire actually do all day? They are seemingly working somewhere — the national unemployment rate is the lowestit’s been since 2000 — and data would suggest that many of them are working in offices. Blue-collar jobs
now make up less than 14 per cent of total employment, down from 31 per cent in 1970. But understanding how these white-collar workers occupy themselves when they get to their desks in skyscrapers and office parks across America takes a little imagination.
That’s because, according to David Graeber, many of them aren’t doing anything at all. In “Bull__ Jobs,” Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, applies a critical eye to the Western world of work, where, he says, companies pay people to carry out an endless array of tasks that make no meaningful contribution to society. Graeber is expanding on a 2013 essay that he published in Strike! magazine and that subsequently went viral. In it, citing a famous prediction by the economist John Maynard Keynes, he argued that technology should have made workers more productive, leading to a 15-hour workweek, but instead has been used to make people work more, in pointless jobs
American work has indeed undergone a fundamental shift in the past century. Where workers once made things, the bulk of them now serve people instead. The increase in service jobs
involves not just the type of work people do at restaurants or clothing stores; service-sector employees include administrators, consultants, accountants and call-center representatives. Between 1910 and 2000 in the United States, the share of people in professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service jobs
grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment, Graeber says.
Graeber does not claim to know which jobs
are useless and which are not; instead he asks workers to weigh in on that themselves. After his essay was published, he solicited comments from people who felt that their jobs
were meaningless, and the book draws on several hundred testimonies from people who responded on Twitter to his calls for examples of useless jobs.
He uses these responses to understand what types of pointless jobs
exist. There are the “flunkies,” who are hired to make other people feel important, like the publishing-company receptionist whose responsibilities were limited to filling the mint jar and answering the phone a few times a day; the “goons,” who aggressively sell people things they don’t need or want, like the call-center employees who pitch expensive credit reports to people who could get them free; and the “duct tapers,” who exist only because of a “glitch” in an organisation, like the woman who had to proofread research reports written by a statistician who was a terrible writer. Graeber asserts that as much as 40 per cent of the work force in rich countries may be stuck in these pointless jobs, though his only proof comes from a 2015 YouGov poll that asked Britons if their job made a “meaningful contribution” to the world — 37 per cent said it did not.
The idea of office ennui is nothing new — in 1853, Melville wrote of Bartleby, the clerk who one day decided he preferred not to do his job anymore. But Graeber argues that there are more useless office jobs
than ever before. He blames this largely on the rise of the financial and information sectors and on what he calls “managerial feudalism,” in which companies keep adding supervisors and white-collar workers, rather than sharing with blue-collar workers the fruits of their increased productivity. Companies do not get rid of these useless positions, he says, because economic policy is premised on the idea that creating more jobs
should be a top priority. A case in point: President Obama, Graeber argues, supported private health care instead of single-payer because he did not want to destroy the millions of jobs
at insurance companies like Kaiser that a single-payer system would make obsolete — jobs
that Graeber says are clearly “unnecessary.”
Graeber is not an economist; he is an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in highland Madagascar and cops to being an anarchist who wants to see governments and corporations have less power. Yet his argument cries out for stronger economic evidence. Especially since an economist would find a number of flaws in it, including his thesis that automation has led to mass unemployment, but that companies have “stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs
that are effectively made up.” The relationship between automation and jobs
is not so simple: Machines may have replaced some workers, but they also complement workers, making them more productive, and create new types of jobs.
Increased productivity is a key driver of a country’s standard of living; Americans could indeed be working 15-hour workweeks if they wanted to revert to the way Americans lived a century ago. It’s also hard to believe that many useless positions would not have been eliminated during the Great Recession, when the American economy shed more than eight million jobs.
Today, there are still fewer employees in the information sector, which Graeber cites as one of the industries most full of useless jobs, than there were in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s not to say that Graeber’s argument is not without merit — in my own unscientific research, I encountered a few friends who said that their jobs
fit his description perfectly. And Graeber’s anthropological eye and scepticism about capitalism are useful in questioning some parts of the economy that the West has come to accept as normal. Why do preschool teachers make so little money, for example, while the people who design annoying banner ads do pretty well for themselves? Why do people take so much pride in working so hard they barely have time outside the office, while harbouring so much resentment toward people who aren’t as dedicated to their jobs?
Why do so many people have to squeeze doing the things they love — like writing novels or woodworking — into their free time, while spending grim hours under the fluorescent lights of an office doing pointless tasks? If nothing else, this book asks readers whether there might be a better way to organise the world of work. That’s a question worth asking.
©2018The New York Times News Service