Paul W. Gleason is an instructor at California Lutheran University.
The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber achieved international notoriety in 2013 when he published an article titled “On the Phenomenon of Bulls--- Jobs: A Work Rant.” Following a hunch, he hypothesized that huge numbers of professionals did next to nothing at work. Sure enough, hundreds of readers wrote to tell him that he was right. They shuffled papers, fought drowsiness during meetings, and were miserable in the knowledge that their jobs contributed nothing meaningful to society and could disappear without anyone noticing or caring. A subsequent YouGov poll discovered that 37 percent of Britons thought their work made no “meaningful contribution to the world,” while 13 percent weren’t sure. And lest Americans feel too smug, a Gallup poll found that only a third of “U.S. employees were engaged — involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”
The article proved so popular that Graeber has expanded it into a book, “Bulls--- Jobs.” Drawing on interviews with his unhappy correspondents, he defines a bulls--- job as employment “that the worker considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious.” Not all bad jobs are unnecessary. Some workers — in municipal services and the restaurant and transportation industries, for example — may do menial, unpleasant work, but if they all quit, the rest of us would notice. This may not be the case, Graeber writes, with some higher-paid workers such as “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants.” But don’t take Graeber’s word for it. If the polls are correct, a substantial percentage of these workers would agree.
Complementing Graeber’s sharp analysis of white-collar ennui, the journalist Sarah Kessler reports on the burgeoning gig economy in “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work.” She follows freelancers as they try, and mostly fail, to find a better way to make a living. Taken together, the professor and the journalist offer a deep look at what Graeber calls our “civilization based on work” — and what’s so often unsatisfying about living in it.
Graeber traces contemporary attitudes toward work into the distant past. At least as far back as the 16th century, Europeans associated work with virtue. To prove his dignity and value, a man needed to work. Even today, most Americans say their jobs are central to their identities. We are what we do for 40 hours a week — or more. Following the “managerial revolution” of the 20th century, Graeber notes, Americans have increasingly held jobs in the service sector: “administrators, consultants, clerical and accounting staff, IT professionals, and the like.” These midlevel jobs have proliferated for a few reasons. They make executives feel important (every lord needs his retinue), and although extra layers of administration might appear inefficient, they can be quite profitable (think billable hours). But as these elaborate corporate mazes become ends in themselves, many of the drudges wandering their halls have nothing to do, beyond pushing papers to appear busy.
Finding nothing where their sense of identity and purpose should be, many naturally become depressed. Graeber calls worthless work a form of “spiritual violence.” As a young catastrophe risk analyst named Rachel tells him, “I had no concept of the horrible dread I would feel getting up in the morning to spend all day sitting in an office trying to inconspicuously waste time.” The problem, says Graeber, lies in human nature. Drawing on child psychology, he points out that children are delighted when they realize “they can cause predictable effects in the world.” This “pleasure at being the cause” is more than a source of happiness. It is fundamental to the child’s growing sense of self. If so, then a meaningless job is a “direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.”
The gig economy looks like the perfect antidote for the spiritual misery of modern work. Bored at the office? Don’t like having a rigid schedule or a boss telling you what to do? Sign up with Uber, or any other online platform for freelancers. Work only as much as you need or want to. Sure enough, the people in Kessler’s book turn to gigs for flexibility and financial independence.
The only problem is, according to Kessler , it almost never works out that way. An Uber driver named Mamdooh Husein finds that after accounting for oil changes, air fresheners, car washes, gas and Uber’s commission, he takes home less than minimum wage. When he tries to organize a strike, Uber fires him. By tagging pictures of food and writing product descriptions, a Canadian named Kristy Milland earns $20 an hour on a site called Mechanical Turk, but she has to work so fast that she develops carpel tunnel and a cyst on her wrist as big and hard as a marble. (Mechanical Turk offers no paid sick leave or workers’ comp.) Rigging her computer to sound a siren whenever a lucrative task becomes available, she sleeps in her office so she can take jobs in the middle of the night without waking her husband. Her “flexible” gig keeps her from one of the simplest joys of marriage: sharing a bed.
The gig economy turns out to be less a brave new world than an opportunity for companies to transfer risks to their employees and offer few benefits in return. Kessler concludes that reinventing work without also reinventing the social safety net “can’t quite count as progress.” To strengthen that net, Graeber advocates a universal basic income big enough to “unlatch work from livelihood entirely.” A UBI, which is a guaranteed government stipend, might grant Kessler’s freelancers the freedom they were looking for. The question would then be: freedom to do what?
Most of Graeber’s alternatives to worthless jobs are the kind of thing one imagines a hip anarchist would enjoy. He would be happy if liberated Americans installed solar panels, discovered cures for cancer, “formed jug bands, devoted themselves to restoring antique furniture, spelunking, translating Mayan hieroglyphics, or trying to set the world record for having sex at an advanced age.”
The people Graeber interviewed, however, seemed to want more. When they longed for meaningful work, “ ‘meaningful’ was just a synonym for ‘helpful,’ and ‘valuable,’ for ‘beneficial,’ ” he writes. They had to be a part of something larger. While humans are social animals, Graeber focuses overwhelmingly on the meaning and purpose that come from creativity and achievement. He mostly neglects the meaning found in belonging. Families, churches, unions, neighborhoods or even nations, no less than workplaces, can all bestow identity and a sense of purpose. Roles like son, citizen or expectant father are a little different than cancer researcher or spelunker. They entail more responsibility than freedom.
These kinds of belonging might sound old-fashioned. They carry well-known dangers: xenophobia, religious bigotry, Freudian family drama. On the other hand, they’re also a big part of what makes life worth living. In a 2010 study based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measures of well-being, Americans found more satisfaction in their families, neighborhoods and spiritual lives than they did in their jobs. Perhaps the worst thing of all about bulls--- jobs and the gig economy, then, is that they keep untold numbers of Americans from spending time in places where they don’t need to prove their value. They find it waiting for them, freely given.
By David Graeber
Simon & Schuster. 333 pp. $27
By Sarah Kessler
St. Martin’s. 289 pp. $25.99