By Brian Kreissl
London School of Economics anthropology professor David Graeber has caused quite a stir recently with his idea that many of today’s jobs are what he terms “bullshit jobs” with little to no benefit to society.
Graeber considers many administrative and service sector jobs to be little more than make work projects that are largely pointless. In fact, he argues that performing such jobs can actually be morally and spiritually damaging for the people doing them because they realize deep down the work they are performing adds little value.
Graeber points to the theories of economist John Maynard Keynes, who predicted that by now we would all be working 15-hour workweeks due to technological advancement and the resulting productivity improvements. While very few of us are likely to see a 15-hour workweek, Graeber argues Keynes was actually correct in that the technology now exists to give us much shorter workweeks and significantly enhanced leisure time.
We all know that hasn’t exactly happened. But why?
While technology has resulted in some job losses in Western countries, up until fairly recently technological advancements actually created new jobs that required higher levels of skill. And even where there have been job losses, the people who are still working seem busier than ever.
The world of work has changed immeasurably over the past century or so, with new jobs, functions and even entire industries springing up that didn’t exist in the past. Many of these jobs were actually created by technology.
According to prevailing wisdom, another reason we haven’t seen a massive reduction in the length of workweeks over the past 50 years or so is because our standard of living has increased. Instead of having significantly more leisure time, we now have a lot more toys.
However, Graeber has another explanation for the phenomenon. He believes the ruling classes saw the danger in allowing workers too much leisure time and having them remain idle. Therefore, he argues, many jobs created in recent years were simply designed to keep people busy.
Criticisms of Graeber’s theory
While Graeber likely has a point, I find it unlikely business leaders would create jobs that don’t add value to the bottom line. Although there is an argument that having full employment boosts the economy and allows employees to purchase an organization’s goods and services, business is frequently accused of short-sightedness in focusing only on short-term financial results. Therefore, there must be some real or perceived value in many of Graeber’s so-called bullshit jobs.
I also believe many of these jobs exist because society and business is more sophisticated than it was in the past. We’ve moved beyond having a society focused on the production of goods to one that values services and information.
And because the legal and regulatory framework has grown ever more complex — largely because business, society and technology have grown more complex — we now have more lawyers and people focused on compliance in some capacity. One example is HR (one of the functions Graeber refers to as bullshit) which has grown as a profession largely because we now have more regulation of the employment relationship.
However, that increased regulation wasn’t brought about simply as a make work project or to give HR practitioners and employment lawyers something to do. Employment protection legislation was introduced because it was needed and because society became more enlightened.
No longer is it considered acceptable to employ children to work in factories, pay women less than we pay men or discriminate against job candidates because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. While HR didn’t pass legislation regulating employers, the HR function is there to ensure their organizations remain compliant.
Another factor responsible for the growth of HR as a profession is the advancement in our understanding of people and what is likely to motivate, engage, incent and retain them as employees. Our workforce has also become increasingly diverse and complex, with many jobs requiring much higher levels of skill than were required in the past.
However, as mentioned there is some value in Graeber’s theory, and HR practitioners would be well advised to keep it in mind when designing jobs, creating job descriptions and recruiting employees. It’s also important to consider a job’s perceived value in trying to motivate and engage employees by giving them “line of sight” to the organization’s goals and objectives and how their jobs impact the bottom line and contribute to society.