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  • Essential Workers vs. Bullshit Jobs


    Jörg Markowitsch

    How will the Covid-19 pandemic change the world of work? Will essential workers be more valued in the future or will ‘bullshit’ jobs continue to increase?  

    Rarely before has the rating of one’s own pro­fes­si­on and par­ti­cu­lar­ly the view of pro­fes­si­ons of others changed so much as it did during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who could not even take a day’s leave off during the lockdown wished them­sel­ves into the home-offices of others. The stay-at-home workers and bene­fi­cia­ries were/are in awe of those who were/are on duty and thanked God or their fate for not being on the frontline: Super­mar­ket cashiers, phar­macists, social care workers, nurses, farm workers, doctors, policemen, postmen, mechanics, rubbish collec­tors, and many more.

    What do these pro­fes­si­ons and tasks that are now ever­y­whe­re in the public eye as ‘essential workers’ have in common? They are reg­rett­ab­ly mostly women and poorly paid, one might think… right? The excep­ti­ons prove the rule: rubbish collec­tors are mainly male, doctors are well paid. So, what then are the commonalities?

    Indeed, none of them are “bullshit jobs”, as David Graeber would call the jobs of those who are allowed to work at home during the lockdown or currently fur­loughed. Graeber was an avowed anarchist, best-selling author (Debt, 2012; Bureau­cra­cy, 2015; Bullshit Jobs, 2018) and above all a cultural anthro­po­lo­gist. As such, a rela­ti­vi­sed per­spec­ti­ve and the ques­tio­ning of values are inse­pa­ra­ble part of his metho­do­lo­gi­cal tools.

    By bullshit jobs, Graeber means jobs that are so pointless, so unne­cessa­ry or even so harmful that even those who do these jobs cannot justify their existence. He estimates that bullshit jobs account for about 20–30% of all jobs. However, these bullshit jobs are not to be confused with “shit jobs”, i.e. underpaid jobs that nobody wants to do. Bullshit jobs, on the other hand, are mostly skilled, well-paid jobs that in reality nobody needs. Graeber provides a long list of examples ranging from lobbyists, influ­en­cers, PR repre­sen­ta­ti­ves, corporate lawyers to soldiers, as well as a typology of bullshit jobs con­sis­ting of five types which is worth reading into (flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters).

    Graeber argues that mea­ning­ful jobs are incre­a­singly being replaced by bullshit jobs and that there is a need for a fun­da­men­tal reas­sess­ment of work that puts mea­ning­ful­ness at the centre of the debate. These arguments are well illus­tra­ted in the animated film “The Value of Work” narrated by Graber himself.

    Graeber’s theses obviously hit a nerve, but unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly not the goal. It is not certain pro­fes­si­ons or jobs per se that are perceived as mea­ningless, but certain acti­vi­ties. Seen in this light, there seems to be probably only three cate­go­ries of acti­vi­ties: those that really are mea­ning­ful and essential, those that are mea­ning­ful but non-essential, and those that are – soul-des­troy­ing – and actually mea­ningless, i.e. those that mean nothing to either society or the individual.

    The case of Frédéric Desnard is indi­ca­ti­ve of the latter type. The French worker suc­cess­ful­ly sued his employer because he was literally ‘bored out’ at work  (The Guardian 2016, The Times 2020).

    The Covid-19 crisis became the litmus test for the essen­tia­li­ty of acti­vi­ties and Graeber’s approach. I fear, however, that the spon­ta­ne­ous applause in reco­gni­ti­on of essential workers, espe­cial­ly so-called frontline workers (a specific dis­ad­van­ta­ged subgroup of essential workers; Blau, Koebe, and Mey­er­ho­fer 2020) may merely be a brief social flare-up. Although I would prefer to see the numerous por­tra­yals of this group that have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic have a longer lasting impact.  See, for example, the pho­to­gra­phic portrait series including passages taken from interview “Workers of Worcester” (2020) or Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Frontline” series “2021). The reason for my scep­ti­cism is simple: alas, no test for the mea­ning­ful­ness of acti­vi­ties exists.

    Graeber passed away on 2 September 2020 while on holiday in a hospital in Venice at the age of 59, a con­nec­tion with COVID-19 hasn’t been ruled out.

    David Graeber on the Value of Work, animated short, Illustration & animation: Jack Dubben, 2016 

    David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis, a central building of the University of Amsterdam, occupied by students in Spring 2015

    David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis, a central building of the University of Amsterdam, occupied by students in Spring 2015

    Abhinav Misra, MD Pulmonary Critical Care Fellow, Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital, from the portrait series: Workers of Worcester

    David Graeber on the Value of Work, 2016, Filmstill

    Tags

    Essential Workers vs. Bullshit Jobs

    Jörg Markowitsch

    How will the Covid-19 pandemic change the world of work? Will essential workers be more valued in the future or will ‘bullshit’ jobs continue to increase?  

    Rarely before has the rating of one’s own pro­fes­si­on and par­ti­cu­lar­ly the view of pro­fes­si­ons of others changed so much as it did during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who could not even take a day’s leave off during the lockdown wished them­sel­ves into the home-offices of others. The stay-at-home workers and bene­fi­cia­ries were/are in awe of those who were/are on duty and thanked God or their fate for not being on the frontline: Super­mar­ket cashiers, phar­macists, social care workers, nurses, farm workers, doctors, policemen, postmen, mechanics, rubbish collec­tors, and many more.

    What do these pro­fes­si­ons and tasks that are now ever­y­whe­re in the public eye as ‘essential workers’ have in common? They are reg­rett­ab­ly mostly women and poorly paid, one might think… right? The excep­ti­ons prove the rule: rubbish collec­tors are mainly male, doctors are well paid. So, what then are the commonalities?

    Indeed, none of them are “bullshit jobs”, as David Graeber would call the jobs of those who are allowed to work at home during the lockdown or currently fur­loughed. Graeber was an avowed anarchist, best-selling author (Debt, 2012; Bureau­cra­cy, 2015; Bullshit Jobs, 2018) and above all a cultural anthro­po­lo­gist. As such, a rela­ti­vi­sed per­spec­ti­ve and the ques­tio­ning of values are inse­pa­ra­ble part of his metho­do­lo­gi­cal tools.

    By bullshit jobs, Graeber means jobs that are so pointless, so unne­cessa­ry or even so harmful that even those who do these jobs cannot justify their existence. He estimates that bullshit jobs account for about 20–30% of all jobs. However, these bullshit jobs are not to be confused with “shit jobs”, i.e. underpaid jobs that nobody wants to do. Bullshit jobs, on the other hand, are mostly skilled, well-paid jobs that in reality nobody needs. Graeber provides a long list of examples ranging from lobbyists, influ­en­cers, PR repre­sen­ta­ti­ves, corporate lawyers to soldiers, as well as a typology of bullshit jobs con­sis­ting of five types which is worth reading into (flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters).

    Graeber argues that mea­ning­ful jobs are incre­a­singly being replaced by bullshit jobs and that there is a need for a fun­da­men­tal reas­sess­ment of work that puts mea­ning­ful­ness at the centre of the debate. These arguments are well illus­tra­ted in the animated film “The Value of Work” narrated by Graber himself.

    Graeber’s theses obviously hit a nerve, but unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly not the goal. It is not certain pro­fes­si­ons or jobs per se that are perceived as mea­ningless, but certain acti­vi­ties. Seen in this light, there seems to be probably only three cate­go­ries of acti­vi­ties: those that really are mea­ning­ful and essential, those that are mea­ning­ful but non-essential, and those that are – soul-des­troy­ing – and actually mea­ningless, i.e. those that mean nothing to either society or the individual.

    The case of Frédéric Desnard is indi­ca­ti­ve of the latter type. The French worker suc­cess­ful­ly sued his employer because he was literally ‘bored out’ at work  (The Guardian 2016, The Times 2020).

    The Covid-19 crisis became the litmus test for the essen­tia­li­ty of acti­vi­ties and Graeber’s approach. I fear, however, that the spon­ta­ne­ous applause in reco­gni­ti­on of essential workers, espe­cial­ly so-called frontline workers (a specific dis­ad­van­ta­ged subgroup of essential workers; Blau, Koebe, and Mey­er­ho­fer 2020) may merely be a brief social flare-up. Although I would prefer to see the numerous por­tra­yals of this group that have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic have a longer lasting impact.  See, for example, the pho­to­gra­phic portrait series including passages taken from interview “Workers of Worcester” (2020) or Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Frontline” series “2021). The reason for my scep­ti­cism is simple: alas, no test for the mea­ning­ful­ness of acti­vi­ties exists.

    Graeber passed away on 2 September 2020 while on holiday in a hospital in Venice at the age of 59, a con­nec­tion with COVID-19 hasn’t been ruled out.

    David Graeber on the Value of Work, animated short, Illustration & animation: Jack Dubben, 2016

    David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis, a central building of the University of Amsterdam, occupied by students in Spring 2015

    David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis, a central building of the University of Amsterdam, occupied by students in Spring 2015

    Abhinav Misra, MD Pulmonary Critical Care Fellow, Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital, from the portrait series: Workers of Worcester

    David Graeber on the Value of Work, 2016, Filmstill

    Tags


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    About this blog

    By selecting a film or an image, this blog literally illus­tra­tes the vast sphere of work, employ­ment & education in an open collec­tion of academic, artistic and also anecdotal findings.

    About us

    Konrad Wakol­bin­ger makes docu­men­ta­ry films about work and life. Jörg Mar­ko­witsch does research on education and work. They are both based in Vienna. Infor­ma­ti­on on guest authors can be found in their cor­re­spon­ding articles.

    More about

    Inte­res­ted in more? Find recom­men­da­ti­ons on relevant festivals, film collec­tions and lite­ra­tu­re here.

    About this blog

    With picking a film or an image, this blog literally illus­tra­tes the vast sphere of work, employ­ment & education in an open collec­tion of academic, artistic and also anecdotal findings.

    About us

    Konrad Wakol­bin­ger makes docu­men­ta­ry films about work and life. Jörg Mar­ko­witsch does research on education and work. We both work in Vienna. Infor­ma­ti­on on guest authors can be found in their respec­ti­ve articles.

    More about

    Inte­res­ted in more? Find recom­men­da­ti­ons on relevant festivals, film collec­tions and lite­ra­tu­re here.