David Graeber, an anthropologist, has written an interesting article about whether people generally are working in worthless jobs. He starts with Keynes’ 1930 prediction that by the end of the 20th century technology would have reduced the work week to 15 hours. He goes on to state
A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture. 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 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. 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-delivery drivers) 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”.
While I think he is using the concept of a ‘productive job’ in a rather narrow sense (ie: making something physical), there is an element of truth to the growth of bureaucracy in both the government and in the private sector.
I think that a lot of the growth of administration in the economy has to do with excessive regulation, risk aversion and the litigious society (which in itself is driven by over-regulation). Whole swaths of businesses are forced to employ people in meaningless jobs to appear clean and green, or in a futile effort to eliminate the risk of injury. Our society has become so risk averse we run the risk of stagnation. For in risk there is entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity growth. Zero risk is an impossible dream, much like eternal life. As Prometheus discovered, immortality is unbearable. Zero risk would be a curse.
As for litigation, take this recent example of a Melbourne woman, Catherine Whitty, who successfully sued Prada because the silk skirt she purchased was difficult to clean. Apparently the champagne stains couldn’t be removed. This will no doubt lead to yet more warnings and labels stating that, yes, silk is difficult to clean and keep it away from champagne.
It is past time that we stepped back and took a little personal responsibility rather than trying to blame others for our woes.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal member, Peter Moloney, had said to Ms Whitty
Why are you wasting my time Ms Whitty? You could have worn a denim skirt and it would have washed easily. But you chose to wear the $1600 silk skirt from Prada and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that silk is fragile and delicate. Frankly, such a skirt is only meant to be worn once.