These nuggets are strewn through David Graeber’s Pointless Jobs (Not real name), a provocative, funny and engaging book that claims the world has been engulfed by a rising tide of pointless work. This is a curious charge to hear at a time of rising anxiety about keeping one’s job safe from a robot, or the indignities of the gig economy and sweeping technological disruption. Yet it clearly has appeal.
If Graeber’s idea sounds familiar, it is because the book is based on a 2013 essay he wrote for a radical magazine called Strike! that was such a hit it crashed the publication’s website and was translated into a dozen languages within weeks.
The Economist published a critique of it. Adverts quoting it appeared in the London Underground.
Eventually, pollsters based a UK survey on it showing that 37 per cent of people did not believe their job made “a meaningful contribution to the world”. A Dutch poll later came up with similar results.
For Graeber, an American anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, this confirmed he was on to something big about 21st-century capitalism: it looked a lot like 20th-century Soviet socialism, generating myriad pointless jobs to keep workers employed. Given how that particular venture ended, this is a worrying prospect
Even if this has yet to materialise, the idea that much in the modern office is maddening is hardly new: in 2019 it will be 30 years since newspapers began to publish Dilbert, the satirical take on the corporate workplace that became one of the world’s most popular comic strips.
So why does Graeber’s definition of a pointless job — work so meaningless or pernicious that employees know it is pointless but must pretend otherwise — still resonate so powerfully?
Graeber struggles to provide an entirely convincing answer in his book.
An anarchist credited with inventing the Occupy movement’s slogan, “We are the 99 percent”, he suggests that pointless jobs make sense for a rent-seeking corporate elite fearful of giving exploited workers more time and leisure to think.
Perhaps. Yet it is hard to imagine companies around the world have quietly conspired to subdue the mob by creating — or paying for — mountains of meaningless work.
Graeber is more persuasive when he looks at why people stay in jobs they profess to despise, tracing it back admirably to a theologically inspired work ethic that has convinced people their self-worth lies in labour.
But it is not entirely clear how many jobs are truly pointless.
His book is based on more than 250 first-hand testimonies he received after setting up an email account, email@example.com, and inviting his Twitter followers to send in accounts of their rubbish jobs.
He also downloaded 124 descriptions people offered about their pointless jobs in online discussions of his 2013 essay.
He admits the results “might not be adequate for most forms of statistical analysis”.
They’re also highly subjective. But they allowed him to devise five categories of pointless jobs that will sound familiar to many of those in modern corporate life.
There are flunkies (like the under-employed receptionist), who exist to make bosses look good, and goons (PR workers, lobbyists, telemarketers), who only exist because others also employ people in such roles. “Duct-tapers” are workers whose jobs only exist to fix organisational glitches that should not exist. Box-tickers allow an organisation to claim it is doing something it actually isn’t, and taskmasters supervise people who do not require supervision.
The stories he reports are often priceless, if sometimes difficult to believe. A person he calls Simon claimed to have spent two years analysing the inner workings of a big bank, where he discovered that at least 80 percent of the bank’s 60 000 staff were not needed. “Their jobs could either completely be performed by a program or were not needed at all because the programs were designed to enable or replicate some pointless process to begin with,” Simon said.
Graeber takes at face value the mind-boggling idea that the bank was employing 48 000 people who did nothing useful — or at the least nothing that could not easily be done by a machine.
This may be true. Or it may be pointless. There is really no way of knowing
It does, however, fit one of Graeber’s central theories about why rubbish jobs have proliferated: “managerial feudalism”, elaborate hierarchies of people who employ underlings to enhance their importance.
The result, he claims, is a disaster that amounts to “a genuine scar across our collective soul”.
The solution he proposes will be familiar to many readers: the universal basic income.
An unconditional lump of cash for all citizens would, he thinks, free people from meaningless jobs and allow them to pursue lives of real purpose.
It is a concept that already has advocates from across the political spectrum.
Leftists think it could help end poverty and advance female equality. Silicon Valley billionaires such as Elon Musk think it will eventually become necessary as machines steal human jobs.
Graeber’s aim is more radical. He wants to shatter the link between livelihood and work entirely.
He may be waiting some time. Pilot basic income programmes have been launched around the world in recent years, from Kenya to Canada and the US.
The results are still coming in. Finland announced last month that its closely watched trial of the concept would not be extended beyond its planned two-year lifetime.
But, like much else in Graeber’s book, it is a thought-provoking idea that captures the imagination and deserves our attention.