David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” (Book Club, March 2021)

Man at desk with computer

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the March 2021 book club, when we discussed David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/3717566).

Preface: It would be especially productive to think about and to share your personal work experiences, both in the past and present.

1. “Who are you?” versus “What do you do?”

  • It seems easier or more intuitive to answer the second question, even though both are often conflated.
  • Responses to the first question were centred on beliefs and motivations, personal interests, and recognition of privilege. One could also be described as a “work in progress”.

2. What do you do for a living, and would you consider that to be a “bullshit job”? Generally, what does work mean to you? Graeber cited that 37 per cent of a sample believed so: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case”.

  • No one thought their present jobs were “bullshit jobs”, but articulated the positive and negative aspects of their jobs. Some had negative experiences in the past.
  • All agreed that bullshit jobs exist (in Singapore). These jobs are not necessarily specific to an industry or occupation.
  • Negatives: A job in social media tracking was described as soul-crushing and not serving a higher cause. Other dealt with hierarchies, middle managers, administrators, and bureaucrats, ploughing through administrative work. For instance, the “slide monkey” is someone who does slides for a living.
  • Positives: Seeking a higher purpose and seeing not just the process of the work but also the end-result. Speaking to passions and personal fulfilment, with the desire to align personal beliefs and interests with their work.

3. Graeber contrasts a world without nurses, garbage collectors, mechanics, teachers, dockworkers, science-fiction writers, musicians, with one without private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, legal consultants. In particular, he focuses on and criticises the for-profit sector – especially the finance sector and other corporate hierarchies – and further compares “shit jobs” (blue collar, pay by the hour) to “bullshit jobs” (white collar, salaried). To what extent do you agree?

  • There was agreement on systemic and structural factors, including the oppression of labour and the implications of giving primacy to work. Even more fundamentally, what should work be / what is the function of work?
  • Some of these factors include income and pay disparity, a work culture which encourages “face time” (or staying around at the workplace to show that one is hardworking), and persistent divisions across socio-economic statuses.
  • Singapore’s labour and employment landscape cannot be analysed in isolation of the education system. Many workplace practices or attitudes are carried over or learnt from school, where education is perceived as worker-training and individuals are moulded as human capital.
  • Other forms of juxtaposition include “value” versus “values” and the poor versus the rich (in Singapore, the mantra of uplifting the bottom but not capping the top).

4. And to what extent have your assessments changed, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • The labels of the essential and non-essential worker during the pandemic, often determined by whether someone is blue- or white-collared. Compensation differs.
  • Positive shifts during COVID-19: Increase in salaries for nurses and healthcare workers, Sheng Shiong giving employee bonuses, and greater (albeit belated) attention to the migrant workers (for example, on dormitories and digital payments).
  • Negative shifts: Salaries of top leadership has gone up (which is tied to the discourse on ministerial salaries being pegged to the private sector and how to justify these forms of compensation) and the disconnect between mass unemployment (“labour”) and stock-market increases (“capital”).

5. Humans are increasingly “aware that the greater the social value produced by a job, the less one is likely to be paid to do it”. Do you agree, including in Singaporean context?

  • Care work is often not compensated, with clear gender disparity.
  • Even though the jobs pay well, folks in consultancy, finance, and corporate law tolerate long hours and routines, before burning out after a decade or so. Such work can be soul-crushing.
  • The notion of employers buying their employees’ time, without respect of boundaries and despite the fact that employees often still bring work home.
  • The threat of jobs being replaced and the effectiveness of having someone retrain or upgrade just for the sake of doing so. Work and training are not intrinsically bad or undesirable, but employees should be able to exercise freedom of choice.

6. What does a fulfilling job look like? Or, in de-linking work and the formation of our human character, should we imagine a world where “work” is optional (e.g. with universal basic income)?

  • How work is perceived has implications for the design of social policies (related to social assistance, respect, and esteem), such as the stereotype of the “welfare queen” and the fixation over “deservedness” or “deservingness”. Moreover, are our social safety nets adequate?
  • Could work be more flexible or even optional? People do meaningful things outside of work, and personal identity is not always tied to work.
  • Unionisation and worker solidarity and protection.
  • Whose fault is it if an individual worker or PMET loses a job at 40? The individual or the state?
  • Beyond a universal basic income, with experiments often fixated with the employment effect and whether beneficiaries spend their money “wisely”, (how) do we challenge assumptions of economic models and explore models of degrowth?

Other notes

  • Graeber’s observation that we are a civilisation based on work, with work as an end and meaning in itself. Or, work or working for the sake of working, and work also determining an individual’s self-worth.
    Criticism of the modern morality of “You’re on my time; I’m not paying you to lounge around”, with workers “selling” their time (and labour) and therefore being held unfairly accountable if or when they are idle.
  • In this vein, this perception of work and working also informs the design of social welfare policies and perceptions of poverty and inequality.

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