David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
There are many people who complain that their jobs make no difference in the world. By this I mean not simply that their work has no profound effect on transforming society, which, after all, very few jobs actually do, but rather that they make no difference of any kind of all – if their position, or even the division or branch of the company where they work were to vanish, no one would notice. Their jobs literally do nothing.
In Britain, where I live, surveys reveal that almost 40 per cent of all workers feel their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. It seems to me there is every reason to believe such people are right. The implications are profound. If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.
Here, I’m not so much interested in how we wound up in this situation as much as the moral and psychological effects this situation has on workers. It’s come to the point where millions of people wake up every morning and head off to perform tasks they secretly believe to be unnecessary, or even counterproductive.
Over the past year, I’ve collected hundreds of testimonies from those languishing in these pointless positions. Take Dan, who worked for a large insurance firm based in Toronto. He technically provided graphics for an online data depository no one ever consulted, but most days, he did nothing at all. “It’s honestly hard,” he told me, “to describe how mad and useless I felt. There were easily twice as many managers as actual employees in the building. How ridiculous is that?” His office housed six managers, who were all arranged around one large desk in such a way that the others would notice if any one of them stopped pretending to work. “It all felt like some Kafkaesque dream sequence that only I had the misfortune of realizing, but deep down inside, I felt we must have all known how stupid what we were doing was!”
Dan was unlucky enough to have someone looking over his shoulder at every moment and couldn’t, as many so, simply spend his day watching YouTube. But he was lucky in that at least his co-managers were supportive. Everyone reassured each other what a great job they were all doing, and how indispensable to the team, however absurd they secretly believed the enterprise to be.
Those I interviewed reported that levels of stress and instances of workplace bullying increase when everyone is aware their work is pointless; others reported psychosomatic ailments – anxiety or depression – that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.
The thing that struck me most about these accounts is that in theory – and by theory, I’m referring mainly to economic theory – most of these people should not have been miserable. In fact, they should have been absolutely delighted. Economists assume that humans can be treated as machines whose actions can be predicted by attempting to gain the maximum reward for the least expenditure of resources or effort. For the past several decades, this has been the assumption underlying social policy, as well (i.e., handouts make you lazy; this is why the poor have to be compelled to work). But if this were actually true the symptoms of moral, psychological and social breakdown so regularly reported by those in pointless jobs would be utterly inexplicable.
In fact, one could go further. In wealthy, consumer societies, overall rates of clinical depression tend to be higher, to the point where in the United States, for instance, almost half the population can be expected to experience symptoms of mental illness (overwhelmingly depression) at some point in their lives. This is often laid at the feet of consumerism. While this may be true, might it not also be that those living in consumerist societies are also much more likely to be trapped in meaningless employment themselves? (Those who spend their lives toiling away at useful, productive jobs – teacher, for instance, or nurses – are often underpaid and treated poorly, but they’re much more likely to be angry than depressed.)
It seems to me that much of the moral basis of our civilization is simply wrong. We are different creatures than we assume ourselves to be. Humans want to contribute to society. If some resist paid employment, it’s largely because they are trapped between a job that doesn’t contribute to society (telemarketing) and a useful job whose conditions are so extraordinarily awful that they’d literally do anything else. For proof, one need only look at prisons. Prisons house some of society’s least altruistic members, but, even here, when given a choice between watching TV and playing cards all day or pressing shirts in the prison laundry, prisoners almost invariably choose the latter. Indeed, refusing prisoners the right to work is typically a form of punishment.
We are constantly warned that, as a society, we have become complacent. (“I can barely scroll through Facebook,” one twentysomething Londoner wrote me, “without hitting some preachy think piece about my generation’s entitlement and reluctance to just do a bloody day’s work.” She ended up postponing her advanced degree in physics to become something called a “Catastrophe Risk Analyst,” massaging figures for a bank.) As a society, we’re told work is the ultimate value. “Job creators” are celebrated. Everyone who is not working harder than they would wish to at something they don’t particularly enjoy is treated as a parasite, a bad person, who therefore does not deserve the love and support of their neighbours. Every time there is an economic crisis, warnings appear that we all need to tighten our belts and work harder. The idea we are all working a bit too hard and might do well to relax is virtually unthinkable. But our frantic moral imperative to keep everyone working – and working under someone else’s orders in a job they despise – is not improving society at all.
A century and a half ago, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, sentenced to four years of hard labour in a Siberian prison camp, noted with surprise that “hard labour” was not actually all that difficult. Peasants, he observed, worked far harder. What made it “hard” was mainly the fact that the convict himself got nothing out of it. Still, he thought, the fact that it was useful to someone made it bearable. “It once occurred to me that if one desired to reduce a man to nothing – crush him in such a manner that the most hardened murderer would tremble, all one would have to do would be to give him work of a completely useless character… Let him be constrained to pour water from one vessel into another, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another, and then immediately move it back again, then I am persuaded that at the end of a few days, the prisoner would hang himself or commit a thousand capital crimes, preferring rather to die than endure such humiliation, shame, and torture.”
But what is this, really, except a description of as much as half the paid work currently being done in the world.
And we wonder why we’re all depressed.