Useless work or why we don't work 3-4 hours a day
Useless work or why we don't work 3-4 hours a day

The rapid development of technology that occurred during the 20th century could (and should) have led to people starting to work as little as possible. But instead of hard work being replaced by general rest and three hours of work a day, a myriad of new jobs began to appear in the world, many of which could be called socially useless.

We are publishing an abridged translation of an article by American anthropologist and public figure David Graeber for Strike Magazine!, in which he examines the phenomenon of the existence of "paper clip shifters".


In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century, technology would be advanced enough for countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States to reach a 15-hour workweek. There is every reason to believe that he was right: technologically, we are quite capable of this. And yet it did not, on the contrary: technology was mobilized to find a way to make us all work harder.

And in order to achieve this state of affairs, it was necessary to create jobs that are virtually meaningless. A huge number of people, especially in Europe and North America, spend their entire working life performing tasks that, even in their own carefully hidden opinion, do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage caused by this situation is enormous - it is a scar on our collective soul. However, practically no one talks about it.

Why did the utopia promised by Keynes, which everyone was eagerly awaiting back in the 60s, never materialized?

The standard explanation today is that Keynes did not take into account the massive increase in consumption. With the choice between fewer hours of work and more toys and treats, we collectively chose the latter. And this is a wonderful moralizing story, but even a quick, superficial reflection shows that it cannot be true.

Yes, since the 1920s we have witnessed the creation of an endless array of new jobs and industries, but very few of them have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones or fashion sneakers. What are these new jobs?

A report comparing U.S. employment between 1910 and 2000 gives us the following picture (and I note that it is largely similar to that in the UK): Over the past century, the number of domestic workers employed in industry and the agricultural sector declined sharply. At the same time, the number of "professional, managerial, clerical, commercial and service" jobs tripled, increasing "from one quarter to three quarters of total employment."

In other words, manufacturing jobs, as predicted, were largely automated, but instead of allowing massive reductions in working hours and freeing up the world's population to pursue their own projects and ideas, we saw a bloat not so much of the "services" sector as the administrative sector. To the extent of creating entirely new industries such as financial services and telemarketing or unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and medical administration, human resources and public relations.


And all of these numbers do not even to a small extent reflect all those people whose job it is to provide security, administrative or technical support to these industries. Or, for that matter, the myriad of support jobs (like dog washing or 24/7 pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else spends most of their time working on something else.

All of this is what I propose to call “bullshit work,” when someone out there does meaningless work just to keep us all working. And therein lies the main mystery: under capitalism this should not happen.

In the old socialist states, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system created as many jobs as needed (so three vendors could work in a shop to sell one piece of meat). And this is the very problem that market competition had to solve.

According to economic theory, the last thing a profit-seeking company needs to do is spend money on workers who don't need to be hired. Nevertheless, one way or another, but this is exactly what is happening. While corporations can engage in ruthless downsizing, layoffs invariably fall on the class of people who actually create, move, repair and maintain things.

Thanks to some weird alchemy that no one can explain, the number of hired "paper clip shifters" ultimately seems to be on the increase.

More and more employees are discovering that, unlike Soviet workers, they now actually work 40 or even 50 hours a week on paper, but actually work effectively about 15 hours, as Keynes predicted. The rest of the time they spend organizing or attending motivational workshops or updating their Facebook profiles.


The answer regarding the reasons for the current situation is clearly not economic - it is moral and political. The ruling class realized that a happy and productive population with free time was a grave danger. On the other hand, the feeling that work itself is a moral value and that someone who is unwilling to submit to any intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is also an extremely convenient idea.

Reflecting on the seemingly endless growth of administrative responsibilities in UK academic departments, I came to an idea of ​​what hell might look like. Hell is a collection of people who spend most of their time working on a task that they don't like and aren't particularly good at. […]

I understand that any such argument raises immediate objections: “Who are you to say what jobs are really needed? You yourself are a professor of anthropology, and what is the need for this work? " And on the one hand, they are obviously correct. There can be no objective measure of social value, but what about those people who are themselves convinced that their work is meaningless? Not so long ago, I contacted a school friend whom I hadn’t seen since I was 12.

I was amazed to discover that during this time he became first a poet and then a lead singer of an indie rock band. I heard some of his songs on the radio, not even suspecting that it was him. A brilliant innovator - and his work has undoubtedly illuminated and improved the lives of people around the world. However, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he lost his contract and ended up, as he put it, "made the default choice: went to law school." He is now a corporate lawyer working for a prominent New York firm.

He was the first to admit that his work is completely meaningless, brings nothing to the world and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There are many questions to ask here. For example, what does our society say about the fact that it generates an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently endless demand for specialists in corporate law? The answer is simple: when 1% of the population controls most of the world's wealth, the "market" reflects what is useful or important to these people, and not to anyone else. But more than that, he shows that most people in such positions will eventually become aware of this. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever met a corporate lawyer who doesn't consider his job to be bullshit.

The same goes for almost all of the new industries described above. There is a whole class of hired professionals who, if you meet them at parties and admit that you are doing something that might seem interesting (like an anthropologist), they will not want to discuss their own occupation at all. Give them a drink and they start ranting about how pointless and stupid their job is.

It all looks like deep psychological abuse. How can you even talk about dignity in work when you secretly feel that your work should not exist?

How can this not cause feelings of deep rage and resentment? Yet the special genius of our society lies in the fact that its rulers have come up with a way to channel anger in the other direction - against those who really do meaningful work. For example, in our society there is a general rule: the more obvious that a job is beneficial to others, the less paid for it. Again, it is difficult to find an objective measure, but one simple way to appreciate the meaning of such work is to ask, "What would happen if this whole class of people just disappeared?"


Whatever you say about nurses, garbage collectors or mechanics, it is obvious that if they disappeared in a puff of smoke in an instant, the consequences would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock workers will quickly find itself in trouble, and even a world without science fiction writers or ska musicians will clearly be worse.

But it is not entirely clear how humanity would be affected if all lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal advisers suddenly disappeared in a similar way. (Many suspect that the world would be much better.) However, aside from a handful of well-publicized exceptions (doctors), the rule above applies and performs surprisingly well.

Even more perverse is the widespread belief that this seems to be the way it should be - one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can clearly see this in the tabloid reports that stir up resentment against underground workers for paralyzing London during parliamentary controversies, but the very fact that underground workers can paralyze an entire city shows that their work is really necessary.

But that seems to be what annoys people. This is even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have made remarkable strides in mobilizing discontent with school teachers or auto workers (rather than school administrators or auto industry managers who are actually causing problems) for their supposedly inflated salaries and benefits. As if they were being told: “You are teaching children anyway! Or you make cars! You have a real job! And on top of that, do you still have the courage to count on pensions and middle class health care ?! " […]

Real workers who actually produce something are subjected to ruthless pressure and exploitation. The rest are split between the unemployed (a terrorized stratum, insulted by all) and the wider population, who are mostly paid to do nothing in positions designed to be able to identify with the perspectives and feelings of the ruling class and yet it is time to generate seething resentment against anyone whose work has a clear and undeniable social value.

It is clear that this system was never created deliberately, it emerged after almost a century of trial and error. But this is the only explanation of why, despite all our technological capabilities, not all of us work 3-4 hours a day.

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