Bullshit jobs and Donald Trump
What a fascinating interview. I’d heard about the book, but like many others on the 100-plus list of to-read titles, haven’t gotten to it yet. The Economist did, and asked the author a few excellent questions.
The Economist: You note that a lot of interesting jobs that entail creativity and status are concentrated in affluent cities. Do you think bullshit jobs have contributed to populism and polarisation?
Mr Graeber: I do. I think a lot of the—often quite legitimate—rancor directed at the “liberal elite” is based on resentment of those working-class people see as having effectively grabbed all the jobs where you’ll actually get paid well to do something that’s both fun and creative, but also, obviously benefits society. If you can’t afford to send your kid to a top college and then support them for 2-3 years doing unpaid internships in some place like New York or San Francisco, forget it, you’re locked out.
For everybody else, unless you get very lucky, your choices are largely limited to two options. You can get a basically bullshit job, which will pay the rent but leave you wracked with the guilty feeling that you are being forced, against your will, to be a fraud and a parasite. Or, you can get a helpful, useful job taking care of people, making or moving or maintaining things that people want or need - but then, likely you will be paid so little you won’t be able to take care of your own family.
There is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.
Those in the largely pointless jobs secretly resent teachers or even auto workers, who actually get to do something useful, and feel it’s outrageous when they demand nice salaries and health care and paid vacations too. Working class people who get to do mostly useful things, resent the liberal elite who grabbed all the useful or beneficial work which actually does pay well and treats you with dignity and respect.
Everyone hates the political class who they see (in my opinion, quite rightly) as basically a bunch of crooks. But all the other resentments make it very difficult for anyone to get together to do anything about it. To a large extent, our societies have come to be held together by envy and resentment: not envy of the rich, but in many cases, envy of those who are seen as in some ways morally superior, or resentment of those who claim moral superiority but who are seen as hypocritical.
We live in a world where we tell kids they need a good education so they can get a good job, but less often do we hear ourselves tell anyone that what matters in life isn’t to have a good job but to do work that means something.
Not every job pays well. If we happen to work at a job we find deeply satisfying that also pays in the six figures, woohoo. That means we can afford a nice house, private schools, lovely vacations in Europe. There’s not much wrong with that.
If we have a job we find deeply satisfying that only pays $40,000 a year with no possibility of getting much more, that’s fine too. We can live simply, in a small house or uncluttered apartment, take transit, and not vacation anywhere fancy. There’s not much wrong with that either. Both are equally valid choices that usually lead to happiness and mirth.
The problem is when we find ourselves in a job we only do because of the money. A job that leaves us empty, feeling hollow, useless even. A job we know doesn’t really need to exist. Except we’re trapped by it, because we bought the house and the trips to Denmark and sent the kids to private school and if we were to get off the treadmill it would all fall apart. There’s a lot that’s wrong with that.
including feeling resentment and possibly alienation from a society that rewards something that makes us feel so damn miserable. And that resentment and alienation, in turns, contributes to this awful political climate where a man who thinks he’s the second coming (or jokes about same, which isn’t much better) can become — and remain — president.