It’s not something we often think about, but we spend such a huge part of our lives working, so we really should ask… why do we have jobs?
The answer may seem obvious… to put food on the table. To obtain the resources we need survive.
Now vs Then
It was that way for millennia. Humanity began its days as hunter gatherers, and then we become farmers, growing the food we needed to feed or families and maybe trading some of it with other producers.
Now, our society has reached a level of technological and organisational know-how so that each individual no longer needs to personally produce food, shelter and the other necessities of life. In fact, with technology’s increasing capability to provide for our needs, the necessity of human work is becoming questionable. If machines can drive our cars, harvest our crops, make our clothes and even provide medical diagnoses, then why do humans need to work?
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century technology would have advanced sufficiently that in countries such as the UK and the US we’d be on 15-hour weeks. David Graeber’s gives a possible explanation as to why this hasn’t happened in an article entitled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:
“In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
He goes on to explain where these unnecessary jobs come from:
“But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the ”service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza-delivery drivers) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.”
As a present call centre worker (while funding my university studies), I can attest to the existence of at least one industry of bullshit jobs. I literally spend my days nagging and pestering people into buying things they neither want or need. It makes both myself and the person I’m talking to miserable. The only person that wins is the owner at the top of the chain who makes the money by fooling everyone else.
Does the work actually need to be done?
The leaders of our country speak of job creation as a key priority, and we never seem to question this goal. But we really should consider why we want to create more jobs and more work in the first place, as this seems a rather strange notion. We don’t set out to make more work for ourselves in our personal lives. Conversely, we embrace the many ways we can make our lives easier and more convenient (e.g. robot vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and remote-control everything). However, job creation, by definition, means creating more work for ourselves as a society. Why would we want to add to this burden? Many of us hate our jobs and find them to be stressful distractions from what is truly important in our lives such as our families, relationships and wellbeing.
We don’t need to look far to answer this question. We want more work because work is how we get money. Even if you hate your job, at least it allows you to feed your family, educate your children and make your mortgage payments. You need a job to survive in the twenty-first century.
But wait a minute. Isn’t that just the same as the hunter-gatherer times? In those days, we spent our time pursuing the resources we need to survive. All that has changed is that now we pursue that same goal by sitting sedentary in front of a computer screen rather than by hunting bears or growing vegetables on the family farm. Sure, we might live for more years and have more things, but what is the point if we waste those extra years overworked and stressed by our bullshit jobs?
We have failed to use technology in a way that eases the burden of humanity’s collective workload. Instead of making the economy more efficient, technology has allowed us to waste our time doing unnecessary work that we have made necessary for survival.