We need basic income and real work, not bullshit jobs.
“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau wrote those words in 1863, so he never got to see how much stupider and more damaging jobs would become in the 21st Century. Throwing rocks over a wall, then throwing them back might seem meaningful and rewarding compared to sitting in an office writing reports nobody reads, cold calling people to sell insurance, defending a predatory corporation in court, or any of the 50% or more of jobs whose own workers class them as “bullshit.”
Millions of current jobs are worse than meaningless. David Graeber, recently deceased anthropologist author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, wrote that “our capitalist system rewards those who destroy value over those who create it, paying higher wages to consultants, marketing experts, and creators of financial products than nurses, teachers, and sanitation workers.”
While white-collar jobs tend to be meaningless, a lot of working-class blue collar jobs also serve no good purpose. “Good jobs” building oil pipelines or cutting down forests, are not making the world a better place for anyone.
We need to do away with bullshit jobs. They can be replaced by a strong universal basic income (UBI) program that would enable people to do the immense caretaking that people, animals, plants, and our planet need, or do whatever creative things they are called to do.
And here’s the reason I write this article: the rich ALWAYS say we can’t afford UBI. We don’t have the money, or it would cause massive inflation. But the clear truth is that we ALREADY waste more money than UBI would cost, paying for meaningless jobs. Just give us the money and skip the BS.
What makes a bullshit job?
Dr. Graeber defined a bullshit job as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, they feel obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” He says that, ironically, bullshit jobs tend to be higher-paid and get more respect than useful work. (Think how society treats corporate vice-presidents vs. the farm workers who feed them.)
It’s not all good for the privileged. “Those who work in bullshit jobs,” says Graeber, “such as middle management, PR, HR, marketers, lawyers, lobbyists, financial consultants, are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing … they feel it’s all based on a lie — as, indeed, it is.”
Graeber was surprised to find out “just how hard it was for so many people to adjust to what seemed like minor problems such as boredom and sense of purposelessness in life. Why couldn’t they just say, ‘Okay, so I’m getting something for nothing. Let’s just hope the boss doesn’t figure it out!”
“But no, the overwhelming majority reported themselves to be utterly miserable. They reported depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses that would magically disappear the moment they were given what they considered real work; free of an awful, sadomasochistic workplace dynamic.”
Studies that came out after Graeber’s articles went viral found that 37% of UK residents thought they had bullshit jobs, while 13% were “not sure.” 40% of Dutch employees acknowledged that their positions had no good reason to exist. Graeber says these numbers are artificially low, because many employees never see the outcome of their company’s business so can’t appreciate how useless it is.
Not just office workers
Jobs can be bullshit on at least four levels.
● Some jobs have almost no duties; you only have to be there, perhaps waiting on your executive boss in some way. Or the duties are manifestly useless, like sitting in meetings where nothing actually gets done.
● Sometimes the job is real, but the entire company is bullshit. It might be a tax dodge which only exists to launder money, or a social agency which pays professionals to make being poor into a full-time job.
● Sometimes the whole industry is bullshit. Think about hedge funds or the financial institutions that caused the 2008 crash. We have offices full of financiers who move money around and take pieces of it for themselves. Can anyone identify a valid social reason for their existence? Yet they employ thousands of people.
● Some companies and industries are worse than useless; they actively destroy the world in which we live. Military industries, mining, oil and gas companies are obvious examples, but there are many more.
At any level of employment, if the job is stupid or does no good, workers won’t be happy and society receives no benefit. Think of a lumbering company whose business plan is clear-cutting old growth forests. They will have a large group of people doing the actual cutting, though fewer than before since bulldozers have replaced many of them. There will be supervisors telling them what to do, office workers keeping their records and writing their paychecks. Above them are executives who buy, lease and sign deals to gain access to the trees and to sell them. Above them are financiers who may never have seen an old growth tree or a logger, but rake in profits on the company stock they own.
All those jobs are destructive. Some may feel emptier than others, some are better paid than others, but are any of them meaningful?
Where did all the bullshit jobs come from?
Why are there so many bullshit jobs? The short answer is “Mechanization.” Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers are replaced by machines. This process has gone on since the start of the industrial revolution, and the pace is accelerating. Some decent new jobs are created, but not nearly enough to keep up.
But there’s a second answer — the system needs to keep people working to keep profits coming and workers from rebelling. That’s why we have new high-rise office towers while old ones sit empty and the construction workers who build them have high rates of suicide. We build new housing developments while millions of homes and apartments are vacant. Profits depend on keeping the wheels turning, even if the jobs are bullshit and we’re heading for a cliff.
Why do people work meaningless jobs? Maybe fear of homelessness and hunger drives us to take jobs we don’t want and stay in jobs we hate. Society looks down on the unemployed poor, calls them lazy, and treats them cruelly. Society runs on the Protestant work ethic which condemns idleness as a great sin. Keep pushing those papers and draining those wetlands or burn in Hell! We oppress Nature and workers at the same time.
We Need Worldwide Basic Income Now
Capitalism has created immense wealth. But the wealth has never been shared. It’s used to enrich the few and to push people into ever-more-pointless bullshit jobs.
As we’ve seen, many jobs are unnecessary anyway. Capitalism makes people do them to survive, because rulers fear what workers would do “if they had security and time,” as Dr. Graeber puts it. Society produces more than enough wealth to replace bullshit jobs with UBI.
Then people can do work the world needs. Indigenous people see our purpose on Earth as caretaking Nature and providing for future generations. We must heal the grievous wounds industrial civilization has inflicted, grow more trees and food, caretake for animals, plants, people, water and Earth, and enjoy Life.
Once freed from unnecessary bullshit jobs, what wonders of beauty and science could people create? How much fun could we have? UBI should be implemented worldwide. Studies show UBI doesn’t make people lazy; it frees them to be better.
Some things to do about a bullshit job: If you’re ready, quit. It’s OK to not have a job. Join or form a worker-owned cooperative to do something good. If your job is useful but could be much healthier, organize a union. Fight for UBI. Join or support an Indigenous-led group fighting for our Earth.
Because of climate change, time is short. Why don’t we start healing now?
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