COULD we one day work just 15 hours per week?
In 1930, in a speech titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, British economist John Maynard Keynes bucked the economic pessimism of the Great Depression to offer a hopeful view of the future.
Unless policymakers along the way made “disastrous mistakes”, by the year 2030 we would be working just 15 hours per week, according to Keynes, who predicted mankind would instead be facing its greatest ever challenge — what to do with all its free time.
“If you look at the history of the 20th century, up until 1980, almost all the thinkers thought we’d be working less and less,” said Dutch author Rutger Bregman, who champions the idea in his book Utopia for Realists. “They all assumed the great challenge of the future was going to be boredom, with robots taking over jobs.”
Keynes’ prediction was simple extrapolation based on existing trends, and indeed up until the 1980s the work week across the developed world was shrinking. So what happened?
“There are two explanations,” Bregman said. “The first and most popular explanation is consumerism — we keep on buying stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like. There’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain it all, because most people today work in the service sector.
“They’re sitting in offices, sending emails to each other all day, or writing reports no one reads, so consumerism can’t be the explanation because most of the products we consumer are manufactured in third-world countries by wage slaves or robots.”
Instead, Bregman blames the rise of “bullshit jobs”.
“The numbers are pretty astonishing,” he said. “Some polls from the UK found 37 per cent of all British workers think their job is completely useless. The easiest way to find out if you have a bullshit job is to go on strike and see what happens.”
In his book, Bregman contrasts the 1968 sanitation worker strike in New York City — which resulted in 10,000 tonnes of garbage piling up on the streets every day until authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency — with Ireland’s bank employee strike two years later.
“That lasted for six months and nothing much happened,” he said. “The economy kept growing, and after six months the bankers came back and said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to work.’”
The Eloi and the Morlocks are the two fictional post-human races in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine.
By the year AD 802,701, humanity has evolved into two separate species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi live a banal life of ease on the surface of the Earth while the Morlocks live underground, tending machinery and providing food, clothing, and inventory for the Eloi. The narration suggests that the separation of species may have been the result of a widening split between different social classes. With all their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled, the Eloi have slowly become dissolute and naive.
Wells’ Morlocks evolved from those who do real work in contemporary society: the farmers, teachers, nurses, cops, road-workers and so on, while, presumably, the Eloi came from those with no real need to work, the people with BS jobs.
But wait a minute! The Eloi “have their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled and have slowly become dissolute and naive.” They don’t sound like BS Jobs people to me! BS jobs people are usually busy administrators, consultants, advisers and so on. They are the high-minded people who know what is best for their employer. One example is the recent proliferation of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion officers in Australia. There are now 18,000 of them.
Clearly both J.M.Keynes and H.G.Wells got it badly wrong.
9 Replies to “Bregman’s BS Jobs”
An excellent topic. I have so many thoughts, from so many directions, that it will take some time to make a coherent comment, but one will come.
In the 1960 Movie version of The Time Machine starring the Australian Rod Taylor, the Morlocks eat the Eloi every now and again. Could it be an allegory for irredeemable deplorables in the future?
I’d take the concept even further, and ask why we’re not seriously talking about a standard basic income – for everyone?
As anyone who’s had anything to do with Centrelink knows, they’re attempting to enforce a job-based system that no longer works. Some families are up to the 3rd or even 4th generation of unemployed, because the jobs their forebears did (street sweeping, fruit picking, digging ditches) no longer exist.
Since I’ve retired and had a small but regular income my creativity and productivity have soared.
Some European countries are, I believe, considering the concept.
That is precisely what Bregman is on about in Utopia for Realists, see https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/too-many-bullst-jobs-dutch-author-rutger-bregman-says-we-need-a-15hour-work-week/news-story/f1669b5200a80ccc76e16bad91ea9259
And, yes, I agree. For example, if all the BS Jobs in Education Administration were eliminated, then teachers might be free to actually teach.
Totally agree. Same in the medical profession, let doctors doctor. Each time I go into the Royal, all I see are administrators and office workers. Hard to see a doctor or a nurse. And this does not take into account the bureaucrats and public servants and minsters all trying to dictate what a doctor can or cannot do. Let the doctors decide, and remove all those bullshit jobs that make medicine, and medical treatment and medical insurance so awfully expensive and limited.
All the time I hear about work. The right to work. The moving of retirement to later so we can work longer, or more. Making it easier for older people to get work.
And all the time all I think of is how we all actually work for the banks (or financial institutions). We work because we either want to buy something, or have to pay for something we already bought. If we are paying a debt off, we are working for a bank. It is as if they paid us in advance for work we are yet to do. The epitome of this of course is a house mortgage, in return for which we work for at least 25 years, most of our working life. (What ever working life means any more.)
My thought is about the right not to work. I don’t mean to bludge on the dole. And in saying that I don’t mean the legitimate unemployed requiring our well evolved social safety nets. I mean our society should have a structure that allow sus to work if we need to (to pay for something) or not work if we prefer to not buy stuff.
There are things we have to buy of course, food, water, clothing, shelter. Or do we? Food can be grown or raised, clothing does not have to be latest or expensive fashion. I always wonder when I hear of someone getting a huge work promotion and all they can think of is getting a bigger house, a bigger car, taking a bigger overseas trip. So the increased salary results in nothing more, just bigger stuff, which still has to be worked for to pay for. A perpetual cycle. Same with someone winning the lottery.
I am debt free. I have all I want and need, some replacement or maintenance at times, but I want and need nothing basically. I am boring when others go shopping. I work because I love it. I work when and how and if I want to. Work is not the right word for what I do. It is a mesh of pleasure and leisure as well. I am the only person I know who lives like this. Consequently I agree with Bregman that it is consumerism. In turn this life style, or economic model, has resulted in the need to create work, and so I agree with him also that this pressure has resulted in the bullshit jobs.
But above all I am a fan of Keynes. So my main observation is that the story is not over yet. He has time to be right. This experiment in social systems is a little like ecological time, it happens slowly and we are in the middle of whatever our civilization is yet to become. All very unstable in this middle phase as we are experiencing.
As for the Eloi and Morlocks, H. G. Wells was a fiction writer.
There’s a huge multiplier effect that could easily end up bringing the West down. Those 18,000 “Equity, Diversion and Inclusion officers in Australia” have been put there to fix “what ain’t broke” things like : 1. the research excellence we used to take for granted ; 2. Healthy export industries like coal ; 3. Dynamite our most efficient coal-fired power stations ; 4. Or undo them, cripple our most efficient coal-fired power stations economically by prioritizing volatile renewable electricity ahead of their necessarily invariant outputs, forcing extreme inefficiencies upon them, their burning coal for hours, days without making any income ; and then there’s our actually outlawing nuclear power generation, forcing some of our best R&D offshore ; and so on. Oh, forgot to mention. Much of this “huge multiplier effect that could easily end up bringing the West down” is being done by often higher positioned than the officers you listed Environmental, Climate Emergency and so on Officers. Yes, up there at top levels of governments, many of these undoers.
One shining example of the BS Jobs syndrome is the Commonwealth Department of Education or whatever it happens to be called this week. Their Wikipedia entry at
reads like an episode of Yes Minister. They run no schools or universities but have 3,655 employees. Evidently it is one of the best-run Education Departments in the country. One of its stated aims is “Reducing the burden of government regulation”. Good luck with that.
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