Bullshit Jobs, a 15 hour Week and the Glory of the Garden

There is an interesting argument about ‘bullshit jobs’ that is likely to echo around for years and years. Alas, like a lot of interesting arguments it depends on misinformation and misunderstanding, but it does touch on some important questions.

In its original form it was put forward by Professor David Graeber of the London School of Economics. It goes something like this.

The great Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have predicted that, by the end of the 20th century, technological advances would have made a 15 hour working week standard. Why hasn’t this happened? The answer is that the political and business establishment was so disturbed by the behaviour of young people in the 1960s that they conspired to arrange things so that most people have to work far longer than 15 hours a week at unnecessary and pointless jobs – for which Professor Graeber has coined the term ‘bullshit jobs’ – so they don’t have time on their hands to misbehave and cause trouble.

Many people may find this line of thinking attractive, particularly those who find working for a living distasteful, or who would like to promote some kind of anarchist revolution (for now, communist revolutions seem to be out of fashion).

Without the authority of Keynes behind it, the proposition that technology can (or could, but for an establishment conspiracy to prevent it) enable a standard 15 hour week would be hard to validate. So the first fundamental problem with Professor Graeber’s argument is that Keynes did not in fact make the prediction ascribed to him.

What he actually said, in a 1930 essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ was that:

“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race.”

The economic problem, as Keynes saw it, was the “struggle for subsistence”, to satisfy “…those needs that are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be,” as opposed to those needs “…which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to our fellows.”

To put it another way (and use language which Keynes himself did not) Keynes thought that by 2030 the abolition of poverty might be in sight, if not achieved.

So what was the “the permanent problem of the human race” that Keynes foresaw?

It was that, once the struggle for subsistence had been won, “…for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing cares, how to occupy his leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Keynes saw this as a problem because he believed that “…we have been expressly evolved by nature with all our impulses and deepest instincts for the purpose of solving the economic problem.”

Once the economic problem had been solved Keynes thought that “For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented.” As a palliative for this problem Keynes suggested making “…what work there is still to be done as widely shared as possible. Three hour shifts or a fifteen hour week may put off the problem for a great while.”

In other words, the fifteen hour week was not a predicted outcome, so much as a possible and temporary response to the ‘permanent problem’ arising from what Keynes foresaw.

So, for those of us who are old enough to be Keynes’s grandchildren (in fact he was childless) how does his view of the future stack up?

The first obvious point is that the timescale he set was a hundred years from 1930 – so there is still some way to go.

The second obvious point is that neither of the two assumptions made by Keynes, world peace and a stable world population, have been met

However, if you wanted a more detailed view of what absolute needs are, you could do worse than the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, set to be achieved by 2030. So there is some hope that ‘the ‘economic problem’ may, after all, be solved within the time set by Keynes.

In the UK we generally have a different view of poverty to that which Keynes would have held. For most purposes we define poverty in relative rather than absolute terms, as an income of less than 60% of the median wage. This is sensible for modern purposes but brings with it a paradox, which is that rising real wages increase poverty.

Undoubtedly there are too many people in the UK who have unmet, absolute needs – who sleep on the streets, or in sub-standard accommodation, or who go hungry. There must be economic factors at play in this: it is hard to imagine that anybody with a steady job sleeps rough. But nobody these days would argue (as some might have argued in Keynes’s day) that hunger or homelessness are an inevitable and necessary consequence of economic conditions. The argument now is about how to ensure everybody is fed and housed properly rather than whether this can or should be done.

As for the rest of us, a good guide to what the typical household spends its money on is to be found in the weightings used by the Office of National Statistics for the notional ‘shopping basket’ on which the Consumer Prices Index is based. I suspect Keynes would be surprised to learn that, compared with the amount we spend on food, we spend 47% on alcohol and tobacco, 105% on eating in restaurants, cafes and canteens, 120% on buying and running cars, 36% on package holidays and so on. He might conclude from this that most of our absolute needs are met in abundance.

Of course, the distinction between absolute and relative needs on which Keynes based his view has turned out to be fluid rather than fixed. In Keynes’s day hop-picking was what they did for a holiday in the East End of London – the sort of job for which it is nowadays necessary to bring in workers from the EU. Today, many people in the UK would say that a package holiday abroad is an absolute need.

The Adam in us has re-calibrated our sense of what we really need out of life. Many of us could choose to work less hard without starving. However, we rather like cars, alcohol, tobacco and package holidays. Keynes perhaps had a rather optimistic view of humanity. We like a good time – which may be rather different from living wisely, agreeably and well. That is why obesity has emerged as a major public health problem in our day – in Keynes’s day the problem was malnutrition.

Also, notwithstanding all the bad things about working, on balance most of us probably take a positive view of our jobs.

‘Bullshit jobs’, in Professor Graeber’s sense, is fundamentally a contradiction in terms. If someone is prepared to pay money to have a job done then the job must, to that extent at least, be worth doing. If it is worth doing, then it can be done well or less well. If a job is done well then pride and a sense of satisfaction can be taken in doing it.

That is not say that there are no bullshit jobs in the everyday sense – where the circumstances prevent their being done well or in which for that or some other reason no satisfaction can be taken. This is more a problem of bullshit bosses. There are things that we all can and should do to help.

This is where the Glory of the Garden comes in – a poem by the now unfashionable late Victorian/Edwardian poet Rudyard Kipling. It addresses both the problem raised by Keynes and that of bullshit jobs in the everyday sense.

It starts off in Kipling’s jaunty style:

 Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,

Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,

(Kipling liked to say that he wrote verse rather than poetry – but do not be deceived by the absence of high-flown vocabulary, strained syntax or improbable rhymes. Whether verse or poetry, Kipling wrote with genius.)

We soon realize that this is no mere horticultural celebration – the garden of which Kipling writes is a stand-in for what a previous Prime Minister called the big society, something in which we all have a stake in maintaining and enhancing. And, Kipling continues, if you look amongst the potting sheds, cold frames and hot houses, you’ll see the gardeners at work – gardeners of all ages and abilities.

 And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,

And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows ;

But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,

For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

That sums up the whole point of work, whether as part of the economic problem or not. Whatever our talents or lack of them, there is always something to be done to make the world a better place.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,

There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick

But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,

For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Still less is the world improved by shouting ‘bullshit jobs’ at those who make it go round – whether they be lawyers, bankers, Professors of Anthropology (Professor Graeber’s discipline), gardners, bus drivers, office cleaners, hop pickers, waiters or toilet attendants. They are all entitled to respect and gratitude if they do their jobs well – for the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one

So what we can all of us do about bullshit jobs is this. Acknowledge and value everybody who crosses your path – do not treat them as though they are not there. Smile. Be courteous always. Do not let off steam. Be constructive not critical. Say thank you – and mean it. Do not demean or belittle anybody because of what they do or how much they earn (for which there are cynical and pragmatic reasons as well as noble ones – for example, it used to said that the two most important people in any organisation were the Chief Executive’s secretary and whoever allocated spaces in the office car park).

The last word goes to Rudyard Kipling.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,

If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;

And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,

You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees

That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,

So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray

For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!

And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away !

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