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.
These figures are especially 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.
Jobs have been considered for too long as means to buy necessary stuff for living. But how much of that stuff is really necessary, if we are ready to sacrifice our happiness for it?
There is an increasing fear that robots can replace humans in their typical tasks. The point is that we could easily give away some tasks to robots, still keeping those that make us human. Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs. If we want to really reap the rewards of the huge technological advances made in recent decades (and of the advancing robots), then we need to radically rethink our definition of “work.”
Our definition of work, at present, is incredibly narrow. Only the work that generates money is allowed to count toward GDP. Needless to say why we have organised education around feeding as many people as possible in bite-size flexible parcels into the employment establishment.
Moreover, this is not just a fear of our times. History shows us how men were always afraid of machines taking their places, but ended up improving their actual jobs.
As computers began to appear in offices and robots on factories, President John F. Kennedy declared that the major domestic challenge of the 1960s was to “maintain full employment at a time when automation…is replacing men”. In 1964 a group of Nobel prize winners, known as the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, sent President Lyndon Johnson a memo alerting him to the danger of a revolution triggered by “the combination of the computer and the automated self- regulating machine”. This, they said, was leading to a new era of production “which requires progressively less human labour” and threatened to divide society into a skilled elite and an unskilled underclass. The advent of personal computers in the 1980s provoked further hand wringing over potential job losses.
Yet in the past technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys.
Education needs to broaden and to embed as many inputs as possible, cultivating the human skills no robot can ever have: empathy, hope, dreams.
There will be a future where the value of your work is not determined by the size of your pay check, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. There will be a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived. There will be a future where “jobs are for robots and life is for people”.