Technology was to have replaced much of human labour, leaving us to enjoy 15 hours week, according to the crystal balls of people like John Maynard Keynes in 1930.
What went wrong? The human race created a heap of superfluous vocations – or, in the classification of David Graeber, “bullshit jobs” (not to be confused, take note, with “crap jobs”).
In an essay for the radical British quarterly Strike! that has stirred up a good row (and been republished in various places including the Sydney Morning Herald), the London School of Economics anthropologist puts it this way:
Huge swathes of people in the Western world 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.
Industrialised countries had seen a steep decline in employment in domestic service and manual labour, but plugged that gap with a layer of “salaried paper-pushers” in the aforesaid “bullshit” sectors.
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 such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.
Graeber’s evidence, it has to be said, is more anecdotal than empirical. He writes:
There is a whole class of salaried professionals who, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their jobs really are.
And he concludes:
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working three to four-hour days.
For more on the bullshit job category, see the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman (“As life strategies go, this seems a decent one: where possible, move in the direction of non-pointless activities, and away from those that reek of bullshit”), and the Economist’s Free Exchange blog (“there is a decent chance that ‘bullshit’ administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between ‘bullshit’ industrial jobs and no jobs at all”).
Gawker, meanwhile, has stumbled on one new job that almost certainly satisfies the BS definition: book therapist.
And should you have need for it, here’s an online bullshit job generator.