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Pencil Pushers

Kris Rothstein

David Graeber is a professor of anthropology whose 213 article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” in Strike magazine attracted a passionate response. Overwhelmed by workers who wanted to share personal stories, he found that the trend was even bigger than he thought: his own and other studies found that 3–4% of workers in rich countries see their jobs as pointless. He expanded his work into the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon and Schuster) which seeks to understand what sort of bullshit jobs exist and why. Graeber identifies five classes of bullshit jobs: flunkies, task masters, box tickers, duct tapers and goons, and he provides examples of the type of (non)work done by each. Bullshit jobs have proliferated in areas like middle management and in real estate, finance and insurance, where workers report that they have little work to do and that if their position and their entire industry were eliminated it would improve the economy and the world. Rather than enjoying their idleness, most respondents were bored and unhappy and begged co-workers or bosses to find them something to do.

How is it possible that in a capitalist system, positions are created where there is almost no work to be done? Graeber lays out the complex reasons and investigates who benefits and how. The resulting argument is dense but fascinating, especially the anecdotes related by workers who are often paid to literally do nothing. Graeber is appalled that society allows and accepts this state of affairs. A shorter work week is well within reach, but the richest countries encourage their citizens to work longer hours at jobs they feel are pointless. The solution he proposes is one that is gaining much traction and enthusiasm: universal basic income.

In Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (Penguin Random House), Cornell professor Louis Hyman examines the transformation of work in America from stable and predictable to flexible and precarious. This shift in the post-World War Two era was no economic accident or technological inevit

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The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.