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by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 30
November 2019
Weekend read

How can we find meaning in bullshit jobs?

Jonah Galeota-Sprung finds an inherent tension in the social role of work
by Mary Harrington

My long read pick for this weekend is Jonah Galeota-Sprung’s review of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs for The Point magazine. It begins as a discussion of Graeber’s thesis, that the vast majority of jobs in our advanced economy are “not only unpleasant but purposeless”, but opens into a wide-ranging exploration of the past and future of work, and of what constitutes a meaningful life.

In Graeber’s framework, the working world is divided into those who do necessary jobs such as farming and caring for children, roles that are typically low-status and poorly paid, then an upper echelon of rewarding and meaningful work such as in the arts or NGOs alongside well-paid but less virtuous roles in banking.

“Everyone else is stuck doing some sort of bullshit: work that’s not only of questionable utility in broad terms, but clearly pointless or redundant within its own organizational context. Personal reports from workers in this last group, which Graeber subdivides into the categories of flunky, goon, box ticker, duct taper and taskmaster, form the core of the book.”
- Jonah Galeota-Sprung

The article uses Graeber’s book as a jumping-off point for a wider discussion of the social role of work in post-industrial society, and its Janus-faced straining both toward meaningful effort and libertarian effortlessness. Taking in Classical and Christian readings of the value of work, via Simone Weil and John Maynard Keynes on the subject, the author asks:

“Sure, sitting in a cubicle playing Candy Crush all day is soul-killing—but what else am I gonna do, play Candy Crush all day at home alone? […] Is work what will save us, or what we need to be saved from?”
- Jonah Galeota-Sprung

Galeota-Sprung explores the work of thinkers as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Ivan Ilich, William Morris and Matthew Crawford on, variously, the dignity of manual labour and the right to be lazy. He asks whether in fact these competing visions — opt-in membership of a Tolkeinesque craftsman class, or absolute leisure underpinned by the work of robots —  are not, at the horizon, remarkably similar. Ultimately, the piece reveals that questions of work are questions of meaning; and unless we can agree on what makes life meaningful, we cannot agree on what makes work worth doing.

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