work, leisure, and bullshit

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For the nth time since (at least) Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American in 1992, Laura Flanders points out that Americans are working too damn hard. Flanders notes the upcoming anniversary of King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and remarks that "I wish we were marching for less work, not more of it:"

So we'll march. We'll march for jobs but where do you line up for the march for leisure?

The last time US labor unions marched for that, it was for the eight-hour day, after the depression of 1884. Their banners called for eight hours work and eight hours rest and eight hours for what we will.

The "what we will" part seems to have fallen off the map in the 1930s - and we've had no reductions in work hours since...

Barbara Garson, author of the book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, discusses how to become a part-time worker:

From the end of an "average" American recession, it ordinarily takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak. But in June 2013 -- four full years after the official end of the Great Recession -- we had recovered only 6.6 million jobs, or just three-quarters of the 8.7 million jobs we lost.

Here's the truly mysterious aspect of this "recovery": 21% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less. But 58% of the jobs regained fall into that category.

If wages have dropped, the number of hours worked should decline in tandem--but that has not happened across the board. This brings to mind what David (Debt) Graeber calls bullshit jobs, and his lamentation that "technology has been marshaled...to figure out ways to make us all work more:"

In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. 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.

Graeber continues:

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 like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like 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 deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call "bullshit jobs."

He observes that "more and more employees find themselves...working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets:"

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the '60s).

The Economist chimes in on Graeber's "amusing essay" with the speculation that "most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo," while reminding us--as if that were necessary--that "most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else:"

The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven't grown shorter.

"If we're lucky," the piece continues, our future jobs "will be engaging and meaningful:"

Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining.

They don't march on Washington, either...but we do.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 22, 2013 2:08 PM.

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