‘The More Your Job Helps Others, the Less You Get Paid’

Last summer David Graeber wrote an essay in Strike! Magazine about the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs” — “the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist.”

At Salon, Thomas Frank has an interview with Graeber about why “the more your job helps others, the less you get paid”:

Is the problem of bullshit jobs more apparent to us now because of the financial crisis, the Wall Street bailouts, and the now-well-known fact that people who do almost nothing that’s productive reap so much of our society’s rewards? I mean, we always knew there were pointless jobs out there, but the absurdity of it all never seemed so stark before, say, 2008.

I think the spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded and for what. There was this pall of mystification cast over everything pertaining to that sector — we were told, this is all so very complicated, you couldn’t possibly understand, it’s really very advanced science, you know, they are coming up with trading programs so complicated only astro-physicists can understand them, that sort of thing. We just had to take their word that, somehow, this was creating value in ways our simple little heads couldn’t possibly get around. Then after the crash we realized a lot of this stuff was not just scams, but pretty simple-minded scams, like taking bets you couldn’t possibly pay if you lost and just figuring the government would bail you out if you did. These guys weren’t creating value of any kind. They were making the world worse and getting paid insane amounts of money for it.

Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.

But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” — by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite — that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.

Bolded emphasis mine. The entire interview is interesting, and you can read it here.

Photo: Jessica Mullen