Sunday, August 25, 2013

Doing nothing versus ... doing Bullshit Jobs?

Sometimes, I joke in my classes that the worst invention ever was one that goes back nearly 12,000 years--settled agriculture.  Until then, we humans were no different from other mammals in that we hunted and gathered to feed ourselves, and over the rest of the hours of the day, we played, fought, mated, and scratched ourselves.  And we slept. A lot!

Some stupid humans proposed that we simply stay put, raise some animals, grow some crops, and our problems began.  From that moment on, we were destined to reach the point where we are now.  Growing crops and raising animals meant that we could no longer simply hunt and gather when we felt the hunger pangs, but now had to start planning towards the next meal.  We had to start worrying about the crop going bad, or the animals dying on us.  It was only a matter of time before we played less, mated even less, and slept a whole lot less!

I tell ya, the invention of settled agriculture was the original sin!

Of course, it is all tongue-in-cheek.  I am mighty happy that we have a far better understanding of who we are and where we are in this universe.  Ignorance is no bliss for me.

The process that began 12,000 years ago has led us to the world today in which we do not hunt and gather our food--well, with a few exceptions, that life is impossible for us anymore.  Instead, we work in order to get paid, which we then use to buy the food and more.  The question then is how much do we want to work.  Not much work is needed for mere survival, and a lot more is needed if we want to lead a materially prosperous life.

Quo vadis?

In answering that question, we begin to interpret the options very differently.

David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, writes that we are no way near the utopia of a "15-hour work week" because:
Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.
So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). 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 like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like 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 deliverymen) 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.”
A progression from hunting/gathering to settled agriculture to "bullshit jobs."

While I like the way Graeber phrases it as "bullshit jobs," I don't really agree with his explanation that this is all some capitalist conspiracy:
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, 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 job really is.
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 3-4 hour days.
Ryan Avent at the Economist counters with this as the point of departure:
 The place to start is to recognise that, romance aside, many of the industrial jobs that have been automated away were incredibly tedious and unpleasant for those doing them.
Indeed!  Can you imagine a job day after day of doing the same thing, like tightening the nuts and bolts of a part, day after day, year after year?  Isn't it better to liberate humans from that kind of awful work?

Avent continues:
One question is why today's workers aren't rewarded with high wages for their suffering. And one possible answer is that, well, they are. Real wages for today's clerical workers are far higher than they were for manufacturing workers a century ago, and the work, for all its tedium, probably isn't nearly as unpleasant. Administrative workers get to sit down in climate-controlled offices, tweeting and playing fantasy football on their desktop when time allows. If firms had to pay more to get a body in the deskchair, they would.
Technology continues to improve, however. Just as robots became ever better at various manual tasks over the past century—and were therefore able to replace human labour in a growing array of jobs, beginning with the most routine—computer control systems are able to handle ever more of the work done by human administrative workers. Jobs from truck driver to legal aid to medical diagnostician to customer service technician will soon be threatened by machines. Starting with the most routine tasks. Human labour will not be eliminated entirely from these sectors. Jobs that require a particularly high level of task flexibility, or creativity, or empathy may continue to employ people (for a while). Yet most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo.
And at that point advanced economies may find it necessary to address what is really the central complaint in Mr Graeber's essay. The issue is not that jobs used to have meaning and now they don't; most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else. The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. 
I like the way Avent ends his argument:
there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining
So, there is hope, yet, that a future of not doing anything but to merely watch the day go by is not that far away.

But, wait, what if we end up in a Wall-E world? ;)


Ramesh said...

With all due respect, it is Graeber's writing that is bullshit. I positively gagged at it. Rarely have I read a viewpoint on which I can disagree with almost every word.

Its a free world. We can choose what job we want to do. Jobs are created because there is a demand for their output - not because of some holy grail of Graeber's. To claim that monotony means a bullshit job is an awful hypothesis. And to say that a poet is invariably superior to a pizza delivery guy is the worst form of snobbishness I can imagine.

Yes, humans will automate away most of the tedium, but to say that we are not enjoying greater leisure is plain bullshit. We are enjoying far more leisure than what we did thousands of years ago.

We should learn never to degrade jobs. The lady who changes the bed pan in a hospital ,in my book, is a saint.

Sriram Khé said...

I am surprised that you even note "respect" when commenting on Graeber's rant ;)

Yes, I am with you on every point you make (though I have minor quibbles over how free the world is ... it is way freer than it has ever been, yes)

Often, I find that the leftist folks are incredibly condescending, along the lines of how some work is superior to others. My pet peeve is when teachers complain that garbage truck drivers get paid more than teachers do--once I even remarked that if it matters to them that much then they should quit teaching and work as trash truck drivers.

Yes, the people who work in the kinds of people-care work, like the one you point out, deserve to be paid a lot more for their work ... and that's where my complaint is--the reason they don't get paid more is a reflection of how the market (we the people) values their work versus that of a college professor who rants. The market fails, to some extent. Bullshit is valued more!

I am with Ryan Avent that it has been a steady march towards liberating humans from chores, and we could well be on our way to a "work-less" future. Which is also why we have lots of leisure time, which we spend on watching ballgames, movies, where they earn a gazillion more than the hospital attendant, more than the trash truck drivers, and more than college professors too ;)