I've been thinking about Work a lot recently (note the capital) - both on a local level (what the fuck am i doing with my life?) and on a macro level (why does it feel like everyone is working more & more, often on stuff they don't like?)
I recently read Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber (rip) which has really stuck with me. The original essay that inspired the book (by Graeber himself) is a great read but the core thesis of the book is this: many people around the world are employed in 'bullshit jobs'. Jobs where "even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place".
There are some obvious examples you can think of (telemarketers perhaps) but I think this somewhat hides the core message of the book: that as a society we have glorified 'Work' as a reverent act itself - regardless of what end it serves. That we have created entire markets / industries / economies to make sure people are always working (or at least trying to work) without meaningful regard to what the work actually is. I think the book is really great - it's both a look at Work from a historical & anthropological context and is a good reminder (to me) that Capitalism is as much a political & moral system as it is an economic one (if not more so). Some quotes I like from the book:
“If the existence of bullshit jobs seems to defy the logic of capitalism, one possible reason for their proliferation might be that the existing system isn't capitalism...In many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers.”
“Yet for some reason, we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafés arguing about politics, and gossiping about their friends’ complex polyamorous love affairs.”
I've been thinking about all of this in the context of my life - the ways in which i've learned and taught myself to think of my self worth as an accumulation of the work I produce (which I know is flawed but...hard to shake). It's particularly resonant to me now because in all honesty I don't feel like I'm making any 'good work' these days
I've also been thinking about this in the context of institutional Work - particularly what we as a collective dream & imagine as the Future of Work and how exactly we want to work over the next 25, 50, 100 years. One major theme you can notice in conversations around ‘the future of work’ is independence and decentralization (im so sorry I have to use a few buzz words here). That is - enabling individuals to leave Institutions by offering them ways to monetize their work (or themselves) directly and often get paid directly by their clients (or fans). You can see this in the rise of concepts like the creator economy or in my personal anecdotal experience of seeing lots of friends leave their jobs to contract or freelance (myself included). Implicitly I think, this has become at least one quiet vision of the future of work - independent, small, direct to your audience.
I think this is an admirable & good vision of the future - but I feel like we deserve better. While Independent Work is free of institutional burden and is likely better (for most people) than Corporate Work, its still Work - beholden to just a different client or audience. I think this is particularly pervasive in discussions around the 'creator economy' - where monetization of different (and increasing) parts of your life is not just encouraged but imagined as a sustainable vision of how we, as a society, can engage in Work. To quote Graeber again: “We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.”
I want to be clear - I don't want to be critical of individuals in this writing. In a system as harsh and crushing as ours, I can't fault how someone chooses to get by and put food on the table. Ultimately, as with most things these days, this is about Capitalism, but I think more specifically this is about the idea and word "Work" - how do we imagine and talk about the future of Work - and ultimately what how do we collectively shape our vision for that future.
Graeber offers somewhat of a possible solution (though he is reluctant, as he should be) in the form of a Universal Basic Income1. Im not sure what the answer is either. Just wanted to pass on some existential dread to yall I suppose.
kinda fucked up that Andrew Yang killed the UBI brand forever