Why do we need to work?

I’ve been reading David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” which I got into after reading his essay on it a few years ago (here). At the time I was struck by the comments from Keynes (Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren – here), who believed that in 100 years, technological developments will be such that all activities will be conducted by machine’s and so humans would only choose to work around 3 hours a day. Keynes believed that people would still choose to work a little amount – witnessed by the fact that at the time, the wives of the very rich, often spent some time doing charitable work – so that we have a sense of purpose and because some jobs are enjoyable.

Obviously, this prediction didn’t pan out. Fundamentally, this is because as a society, we have decided to expand the amount of consumer goods we produce, from Facebook to iPhones, and due to the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”.

Graeber’s point is that as a society we have chosen not to work fewer hours but have instead created more jobs, some of which might be considered unnecessary. This is separate to the point that we have also chosen to produce more consumer goods, which requires people to come up with these ideas and make them a reality. How much social value has something like Facebook actually created? Would we have been better off collectively, had we not have spent time building this network and instead spent more time on leisure and seeing people in real life, as oppose to interacting with them on Facebook, whilst at ‘work’?

In his book, Graeber defines a bullshit job as a job that someone does who believes it doesn’t need to be done. He believes this is a subjective definition. So, someone working as a corporate lawyer, who believes that there would be no discernible change in the world if his/her job did not exist, would be working in a bullshit job. (Actually, there’s a little bit more to it than this, but you’d need to read the book for the full distinction). Note that there is a distinction between bullshit jobs (which create no real / social value) and shit jobs, such as cleaning which often involve bad labour conditions and not a pleasant job, but which is necessary and does create value to society. As many commentators have recently pointed out, the ongoing pandemic has demonstrated that these shit jobs (even worse given the health risks the individuals in these positions are facing) are vital for society.

Furthermore, a bullshit job seems to Graeber to be more about whether an individual person subjectively believes their job to be such. This is thus separate to the notion of whether a job is bullshit to society, i.e. whether it creates social value. For example, rent-seekers (those who just extract profits, rather than create anything of value) are of little benefit to society as they do not create anything worthwhile, they just transfer profits from certain groups to other groups. Graeber, gives this a small mention, saying that if the majority of professionals in an industry believe this to be the case, then we can define such a job as bullshit. Obviously, we are abstracting here from actually being able to conduct such an analysis, as surveys are notoriously unreliable, although Graeber does provide some evidence in support of these notions.

Those fulfilling bullshit jobs, often feel dissatisfied, as they feel like they are not contributing to society and are either doing a “pointless” job or find that they actually have little work to do at all. Now this is where it gets interesting. According to basic economic models, (e.g. Shapiro-Stiglitz model), people like shirking (not doing any work), especially if they are getting paid for it. So if people are hired for bullshit jobs, where they do not have to do much except maybe send one or two emails a day, then they should be very happy. But a lot of evidence is contrary to this. Instead we find that people enjoy working (at least in some jobs, and for a certain amount of time) and get intrinsic pleasure from this, especially when they think they are benefiting society.

We can see this in the example that Keynes presented, with the wives of the very wealthy spending some of their time engaged in charitable actions to occupy some of their day.  Graeber uses the example of working class people who win the lottery, finding themselves to be millionaires, but rarely quit their job. Or prison inmates who choose to work even though they have free food and shelter and may not even get paid for their job. Instead, they choose to use some of their time to fulfil a sense of purpose.

This raises many interesting questions and dilemmas, which I will not try to resolve in this article but leave open for further discussion and thought. Firstly, stringent assumptions in neoclassical economics about the desire to shirk are likely to be inaccurate (but hey, this isn’t the first economics assumption that somebody has argued is inaccurate!).  Secondly, and perhaps a logical expansion of the first thought, the economics of incentives and motivation probably places too much weight on the power of money (and other material prizes) to incentivise actions. That is not to say that money provides no incentive. For a start, people need to earn a basic amount to survive etc. But there is a wealth of evidence emerging from the behavioural economics field which shows that money isn’t always the best motivator. And the final point I wish to make, for now, is how this plays into arguments about UBI (universal basic income) or arguments for 4-day weeks and such. Arguments against UBI tend to focus on the resulting effect that the labour market will contract (along with costs of the scheme). Opponents of UBI say that people would not work if given a choice. However, this contradicts the evidence. I also find it very peculiar that the same people who argue that UBI would make everyone rush for unemployment, are the same people who argue that they would continue to work. If this is indeed true (and I don’t doubt it) then these opponents are suffering from the bias of thinking they are some sort of ubermensch, whilst all of their contemporaries are very different…

Needless to say, I think Graeber’s exploration of  the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is a very interesting read, and whilst every point he makes may not hit home, it raises interesting questions about how society has chosen (seemingly not explicitly or universally) to pursue a future of increasing consumption goods at the expense of greater leisure time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *