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Why most of our jobs are meaningless

A London office building in 2013.

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Being paid to do nothing at work might sound like every employee’s dream, but it can also bring shame and depression.

Anthropologist David Graeber at the London School of Economics has written a book, “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory,” on the subject of meaningless work. He cited a survey that showed nearly 40 percent of United Kingdom workers were quite sure their jobs made no significant contribution to the world at all.

While economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that we might be able to work 15-hour workweeks, in many cases, people are actually working more, not less.

Graeber joined us to discuss what makes a job “meaningless” and how he thinks we can solve the issue. 

On where he thinks there’s meaningless work:

Graeber: A lot of middle management, a lot of people — these sort of minor executive, managerial, supervisory, clerical, administrative sort of jobs. Which are exactly the kind of jobs that have been exploding over the last 30, 40 years or so.

A lot of people are just given the responsibility which you could do in an hour a week or two hours a week. Some of them on the other hand are working very hard, but believe that if nobody was doing this, either it would make no difference or the world would be a better place. For example, a lot of people in corporate law feel that way.

I had one guy who was a sub-contractor to a sub-contractor to a sub-contractor to the German military, whose basic job was if a military officer wanted to move his computer from room to room, they had to call people who would call people who would call people. And he would have to drive 200 kilometers in his car, authorize something, move the computer and then go away again.

On the link between meaningless work and depression: 

Graeber: One of the things that’s really interesting that came up in my research is the degree to which actually people are really miserable. We’re taught to think that everybody wants something for nothing, that people are essentially trying to get the most they can out of the world for the least amount of effort. But if you give them a job where they can just collect a pretty good salary for doing nothing, they feel terrible. It has all these depression, anxiety. It has all these psychosomatic effects. People talk about all these strange illnesses that just disappear the moment they get a real job that has responsibilities.

On how we can solve the problem of pointless jobs: 

Graeber: I’ve become increasingly attracted to the idea of universal basic income. We have this idea that if people had the means to live, they would just sit around and watch TV all day. Well, I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, If people were happy being paid to do nothing, they’d be happy in these pointless jobs. But something like 40 percent of people are already doing nonsense. How can it be a worse distribution of labor than we already have? And at least they’ll be happier doing it.

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