Friday, June 21, 2024

On reading and lucky jobs

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Reading, for me, remains an activity that enables me to make connections and join dots with a focus that produces new ideas and stretches my thinking. If I am to be transparent, I watch television far more often than I read and, far too quickly, the summer break concluded and I returned to work.

As the year progresses, I feel both disbelief at my good fortune to be able to work, and guilt, with reports of job losses in media and working families facing extraordinarily tough household situations while the cost of living remains at crisis point.

In this moment, if you have employment and that employment renumerates you well enough for sustained security in housing, medical care and food, then, right now, both locally and globally, you are extraordinarily lucky. Still, I managed to read, firstly in depth and then progressively skimming as the break closed, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory1 by economic anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber, who, sadly, passed away in 2020.

The monograph has been both admired for theorising capitalism’s broken workforce, where work has become an end in itself, and critiqued, for overblowing the argument. Initially a thought-experiment essay born from his observations of contemporary roles within larger organisations, it begins with that prediction in 1930 by economist and philosopher John Maynard Keynes that technology would transform the working week into a 15-hour one.

Weirdly, from my own anecdotal data, technology has indeed produced a longer one. I couldn’t help recalling my own architectural version. When I went through architecture school, there was a practice of leaving the last of the hatching (that is, drawing by hand diagonal lines to convey the earth underground in a sectional drawing) ’til the wee hours, when one was so exhausted that repetitive lizard brain work was best scheduled.

Studio hours, at that time, covered 24 hours, and drawings using computer software were considered a specialist production. There were discussions predicting that, when one could use software to create hatching at a few clicks of the finger, finally, finally, the architecture student could reclaim hours of their life back; those hours could then be reallocated to other more useful activities.

Some 20 years on, with drawing software, as well as other visualisation technology, in the pockets and hands of the standard architecture student, they seem to say the same thing: that technology has not produced shorter working weeks. In fact, it has produced a porosity to work where it is now present all the time. Graeber asks: Why didn’t we get to the promised land?

I started reading Bullshit Jobs to prepare for this column. I find that now, entering my fourth year of writing these columns, I am sort of, well, running low on ideas. But I also read Bullshit Jobs because I am interested in what my and, by extension, our relationship is to work and well socialised conceptualisations of labour. You expect that you have to work somewhere if you wish to earn money.

We once expected that we would have to travel to that place of work and, for the most part, complete an eight-hour day. Variations depending on circumstance could be negotiated but this general model was what you expected on entering the workforce. Since COVID-19, ideas of the workplace and the amount of time you should spend there have been revisited; this invites reflection on other previously held expectations and social obligations of work.

Deep consideration on the question of work is not new. Plato proposed that a just society had to have a handle on how work is performed and by whom.2 I’m sure unnamed others who did not identify as men, before and after him in patriarchal societies, considered this, too. From Plato to the current moment, post-COVID, the framing of work has been varied. Contemporary scholars in the field observe that, while defining work has always been slippery, much of our lives have become more understood through work-like terms: for example, parenting described as a job and relating to others as emotional labour.

Still, despite its definitional slip, our work-relationship is one that does a lot of heavy lifting in the way we construct the self. Take one’s identity; ‘I am an architect’ and ‘I am an academic’ are examples that are relevant to me but, of course, there are thousands of others of importance to others. It is also where so much of one’s time is spent; it is where, beyond identity, one, practically speaking, spends a good proportion of time. And how it is renumerated has a relationship to well-being. If you are paid well, you go to the doctor. If you are paid very well, you go to the doctor and the dentist. If you are paid very, very well, you don’t worry about how much either costs or, at least, not in a way that means that you don’t go.

Given this very practical dimension, you would be right to ask: what does the proposal that mass job creation is meaningless do when there are much more important and more urgent things to consider, particularly for those whose employment is facing precarity? Graeber makes a point about this: about there being no way to measure social value objectively.2 In a way, the first hurdle is the argument that much of the contemporary job market is filled with jobs that do not need to be done and have been created to satisfy a larger machine of capitalism of, well, everything.

He makes the case that work has become an end unto itself and, along the way, proposes that we might even think that being miserable at work is the social contract that one must sign to engage with paid labour. I do hear more stories about being miserable at work than I hear about being overjoyed.

Karamia Müller, in her garden. Image: 

Leilani Heather

Certainly, when Graeber lays out the five categories of types of employment that concern him in the monograph – flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and task masters3 – there seems to be the issue of what the first three are and who does not do the last two. Getting through my day means literally ticking boxes. Even with the day-to-day of work consuming me, Graeber’s points niggle and open me up to something else: What if, through considering work as potentially meaningless, we open up to that which is meaningful?

Disability and mental health advocates challenge the ways in which we conceive disabilities and neurotypical behaviours through a capitalist framework of productivity. Change the framework of productivity and these alter-abilities and behaviours are destigmatised. I like the idea that we may reconceive work and a contemporary workforce so they can empower rather than exclude.

I wonder if perhaps positive shifts in the ways we conceive of work lie on the other side of thinking about what it would mean if work were not the assumed social contract it is currently. I’m not sure I’m on board with all Graeber’s points but it has been rewarding for me to engage with them, particularly when he expresses a desire to end suspicion and resentment degrading societal cohesion.4 To be able to hold such a thought right now feels lucky.

*This image is part of a MArch(Prof) thesis by architectural graduate Jack Wu. He explains: This project intersects the impetus of rooms and their conversations to sustain, inform and make architecture. Architecture itself is dreamed of as a holding environment for the play of transitional objects, themselves furniture that queers and reinvents what it is possible to dream of.


1 David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. UK: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2018.
2 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Philosophical Approaches to Work and Labor’. Published 11 January, 2022.
3 David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, 2018, p. 28.
4 David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, 2018, xxv.

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