In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission, while another poll among 230,000 employees in 142 countries showed that only 13% of workers actually like their job. A recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37% think they have a job that is utterly useless.
They have, what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as, “bullshit jobs”. On paper, these jobs sound fantastic. And yet there are scores of successful professionals with imposing LinkedIn profiles and impressive salaries who nevertheless go home every evening grumbling that their work serves no purpose.
Let’s get one thing clear though: I’m not talking about the sanitation workers, the teachers, and the nurses of the world. If these people were to go on strike, we’d have an instant state of emergency on our hands. No, I’m talking about the growing armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society. Or something to that effect.
So, will there still be enough jobs for everyone a few decades from now? Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs.
Our definition of work, however, is incredibly narrow. Only the work that generates money is allowed to count toward GDP. Little wonder, then, that we have organized education around feeding as many people as possible in bite-size flexible parcels into the employment establishment. Yet what happens when a growing proportion of people deemed successful by the measure of our knowledge economy say their work is pointless?
That’s one of the biggest taboos of our times. Our whole system of finding meaning could dissolve like a puff of smoke.
I believe in a future where the value of your work is not determined by the size of your paycheck, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived.
David Heinemeier Hansson, “Trickle-down workaholism“:
It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge. Of course they’re going to desire fairytale sacrifices. There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.
The sly entrepreneur seeks to cajole their employees with carrots. Organic, locally-sourced ones, delightfully prepared by a master chef, of course. In the office. Along with all the other pampering and indulgent spoils AT THE OFFICE. The game is to make it appear as though employees choose this life for themselves, that they just love spending all their waking (and in some cases, even sleeping) hours at that damn office.
Not only are these sacrifices statistically overwhelmingly likely to be in vain, they’re also completely disproportionate. The programmer or designer or writer or even manager that gives up their life for a 80+ hour moonshot will comparably-speaking be compensated in bananas, even if their lottery coupon should line up. The lion’s share will go to the Scar and his hyenas, not the monkeys.
So don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings. It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and wellbeing of others like cannon fodder.