In a recent post about the idea of a universal basic income, I mused at the end about what would happen to people if they no longer had to work because they had a guaranteed income. Would they begin to feel that they were no longer contributing to society in some way by working for a living, and would that leave them with negative feelings about their own worth? What I did not consider was the fact that many people who work already feel that way because they see their jobs as pretty pointless.
In the latest June 2018 issue of Harper’s magazine I came across an article titled Punching the Clock which is an excerpt from the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, who argues that working at jobs that one sees as pointless makes people miserable.
He says that in the past, meaningful work did not look anything like what the modern workplace requires.
Historically, human work patterns have taken the form of intense bursts of energy followed by rest. Farming, for instance, is generally an all-hands-on-deck mobilization around planting and harvest, with the off-seasons occupied by minor projects. Large projects such as building a house or preparing for a feast tend to take the same form. This is typical of how human beings have always worked. There is no reason to believe that acting otherwise would result in greater efficiency or productivity. Often it has precisely the opposite effect.
One reason that work was historically irregular is because it was largely unsupervised. This is true of medieval feudalism and of most labor arrangements until relatively recent times, even if the relationship between worker and boss was strikingly unequal. If those at the bottom produced what was required of them, those at the top couldn’t be bothered to know how the time was spent.
He says that this changed dramatically when the nature of jobs changed and people essentially rented out their time, typically one third of their day, to their employers and worked under constant supervision. This was accentuated with the arrival of ubiquitous clocks and watches so that “Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold. Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.”
Graeber says that this resulted in employers seeking to make sure that the time they had rented from their employees was not ‘wasted’ and we had the growth of ‘bullshit jobs’, tasks that were given to people just to make sure they were not idling, and this resulted in a very different attitude towards time, and consequently towards work.
The idea that workers have a moral obligation to allow their working time to be dictated has become so normalized that members of the public feel indignant if they see, say, transit workers lounging on the job. Thus busywork was invented: to ameliorate the supposed problem of workers not having enough to do to fill an eight-hour day. Take the experience of a woman named Wendy, who sent me a long history of pointless jobs she had worked:
“As a receptionist for a small trade magazine, I was often given tasks to perform while waiting for the phone to ring. Once, one of the ad- sales people dumped thousands of paper clips on my desk and asked me to sort them by color. She then used them interchangeably.
“Another example: my grandmother lived independently in an apartment in New York City into her early nineties, but she did need some help. We hired a very nice woman to live with her, help her do shopping and laundry, and keep an eye out in case she fell or needed help. So, if all went well, there was nothing for this woman to do. This drove my grandmother crazy. ‘She’s just sitting there!’ she would complain. Ultimately, the woman quit.”
The idea that every minute of one’s workday belongs to the boss is a running gag in many cartoon strips, like Blondie.
Graeber argues that this attitude that every minute of one’s workday must be spent in the service of the employer is hugely damaging.
A bullshit job-where one is treated as if one were usefully employed and forced to play along with the pretense-is inherently demoralizing because it is a game of make–believe not of one’s own making. Of course the soul cries out. It is an assault on the very foundations of self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.
I have been extremely fortunate in having worked my entire life in jobs that I enjoyed, that I thought were extremely meaningful, and where I was almost entirely unsupervised. As long as I was productive on a long time scale, I was left alone. I soon discovered that in academic life it was impossible to maintain a high level of intellectual engagement all day. My brain became exhausted and I needed to periodically recuperate. At most I could do about four hours of intellectually demanding work per day. So what to do with the rest of the time? Part of the time I could spend on administrative and bureaucratic tasks that were mindless. But there was only so much of that at hand. After that, what? Since I was unsupervised, I could do anything and I would often surf the web or watch a cricket Test match if one was being shown online. But in doing so, I never escaped the feeling that I was somehow goofing off and even cheating when doing so, although I knew that I was productive. I had subtly absorbed the mindset that spending every minute in ostensible service to the institution was more important than the quality of the final output.
People in offices who gather around the water cooler to discuss sports and TV and films and gossip are filling in their down time but since they are supervised they have less opportunity to do so and can face censure.