The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs

Ever get that feeling that the system we live in is created to reward the incompetent and disadvantage those with skills we need? Is there any need for us to work such long hours when ‘money’ is created by the click of a button with usury added for extra repression? Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald::

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour working week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. 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.

Why did Keynes’s promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the 1960s – never materialise? The standard line is he didn’t predict the massive increase in consumerism. 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 1920s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones or fancy sneakers.

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.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? 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.

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as it had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem that market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking business is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the lay-offs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50-hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading television series.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the 1960s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinetmakers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Nor does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless, badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: ”Who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And, on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago, I got back in touch with a school friend whom I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that, in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the frontman in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract and, plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ”taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school”. Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

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 per cent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ”the market” reflects what those people think is useful or important, not anyone else.) But even more it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m unsure 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 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.

This is a profound psychological violence. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, rubbish collectors or mechanics, it’s obvious that, were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or stevedores would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity chief executives, lobbyists, public relations researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet, apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it in Britain, when tabloids whip up resentment against transport workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that the workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilising resentment against schoolteachers or car workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or car industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told:

”But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and healthcare?”

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.

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2 thoughts on “The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs

  1. Pyramid business structures are very relevant here; a new company has a normal pyramid shaped structure, to begin there are lots of producers along the bottom vs minimal managers progressing upwards to the guy who started the business at the top. This will slowly invert over time as the company grows and contracts with each economic cycle. Each period of growth sees an influx of managerial layers to handle the extra production and expanding markets. Then follows a period of economic contraction, at this point the managerial classes are tasked with making efficiencies to maintain profits. The obvious solution is to remove the now redundant layers of management while maintaining core production. However, as the decision is in the hands of the very people who should go, like turkeys not voting for Christmas, they inevitably safe guard their own positions and salaries and target production staff, cutting numbers while increasing the demands on those remaining. And so the pyramid begins to invert. This pattern repeats itself time and again with each growth phase seeing a new influx of managers followed by a reduction in producers until such time as the pyramid is completely inverted. At this point the company will begin to fail, there are no longer enough producers to take advantage of periods of growth and company salary and pension burdens tighten profit margins even further. Profits begin to spiral down until the company fails and goes into receivership. Administrators then come in and if the company is worth saving, will strip out all the superfluous management, retain core production and reverse the pyramid once more. Then the whole fiasco begins again.

    This is more a function of human nature and self interest rather than capitalist or socialist economic modelling. Weather it’s managers at a car plant laying off assembly lines, Greek Ministers voting for unsustainable EU austerity measures to ensure their own salaries are paid with bail out funds or communist officials creating pointless jobs to perpetuate their ruling class status, people will by their very nature seek to safeguard their own livelihood even at the obvious long term expense of the company, state or political model.

    If there ever is a Utopia, you can be sure that humans will successfully manage its failure.

    Cynical, Moi?

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