Rutger Bregman, a historian and writer looks at the job roles of these two people – bankers and garbage collectors. He also looks at rise of so called bullshit jobs where we are working just for the sake of it. It is hardly creating any value and in a way quite a few financial sector jobs fall in this category
One can live without banks (quoting from this Irish example) but one can’t live without garbage collectors not doing their jobs:
Thick fog envelops City Hall Park at daybreak on February 2, 1968. Seven thousand New York City sanitation workers stand crowded together, their mood rebellious. Union spokesman John DeLury addresses the multitude from the roof of a truck. When he announces that the mayor has refused further concessions, the crowd’s anger threatens to boil over. As the first rotten eggs sail overhead, DeLury realizes the time for compromise is over. It’s time to take the illegal route, the path prohibited to sanitation workers for the simple reason that the job they do is too important.
It’s time to strike.
The next day, trash goes uncollected throughout the Big Apple. Nearly all the city’s garbage crews have stayed home. “We’ve never had prestige, and it never bothered me before,” one garbageman is quoted in a local newspaper. “But it does now. People treat us like dirt.”
When the mayor goes out to survey the situation two days later, the city is already knee-deep in refuse, with another 10,000 tons added every day. A rank stench begins to percolate through the city’s streets, and rats have been sighted in even the swankiest parts of town. In the space of just a few days, one of the world’s most iconic cities has started to look like a slum. And for the first time since the polio epidemic of 1931, city authorities declare a state of emergency.
Half a century after the strike, the Big Apple seems to have learned its lesson. “Everyone in NYC wants to be garbage collector,” read a recent newspaper headline. These days, the people who pick up after the megacity earn an enviable salary. After five years on the payroll, they can take home as much as $70,000 plus overtime and perks. “They keep the city running,” a Sanitation Department spokesperson explained in the article. “If they were to stop working, however briefly, all of New York City would come to a standstill.”
The paper also interviewed a city sanitation worker. In 2006, Joseph Lerman, then 20, got a call from the city informing him he could report for duty as a collector. “I felt like I’d won the jackpot,” he recounts. Nowadays, Lerman gets up at 4 a.m. every morning to haul garbage bags for shifts of up to 12 hours. To his fellow New Yorkers, it’s only logical that he is well paid for his labors. “Honest,” the city spokesperson smiles, “these men and women aren’t known as the heroes of New York City for nothing.”
Why is it then that garbage collectors are not given their dues? They earn much lower than today’s fashionable financial sector jobs.
He says bulk of the problem is rise of bullshit jobs.
although agricultural and manufacturing production capacity have grown exponentially over the past decades, employment in these industries has dropped. So is it really true that our overworked lifestyle all comes down to out-of-control consumerism?
David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes there’s something else going on. A few years ago he wrote a fascinating piecethat pinned the blame not on the stuff we buy but on the work we do. It is titled, aptly, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”
In Graeber’s analysis, innumerable people spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless, jobs like telemarketer, HR manager, social media strategist, PR advisor, and a whole host of administrative positions at hospitals, universities, and government offices. “Bullshit jobs,” Graeber calls them. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous.
When I first wrote an article about this phenomenon, it unleashed a small flood of confessions. “Personally, I’d prefer to do something that’s genuinely useful,” responded one stockbroker, “but I couldn’t handle the pay cut.” He also described his “amazingly talented former classmate with a Ph.D. in physics” who develops cancer detection technologies, and “earns so much less than me it’s depressing.” But of course, that your work happens to serve a weighty public interest and requires lots of talent, intelligence, and perseverance doesn’t automatically mean you’re raking in the cash.
Or vice versa. Is it any coincidence that the proliferation of well-paid bullshit jobs has coincided with a huge boom in higher education and an economy that revolves around knowledge? Remember, making money without creating anything of value isn’t easy. For starters, you have to memorize some very important-sounding but meaningless jargon. (Crucial when attending strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value add-on co-creation in the network society.) Almost anybody can collect trash, but a career in banking is reserved for a select few.
By no means are all these new service sector jobs pointless – far from it. Look at healthcare, education, fire services, and the police and you’ll find lots of people who go home every day knowing, despite their modest paychecks, they’ve made the world a better place. “It’s as if they are being told,” Graeber writes, “You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”
Most of today’s jobs are about taking money from here to there something which financial sector obviously excels in:
What makes all this especially shocking is that it’s happening in a capitalist system, a system founded on capitalist values like efficiency and productivity. While politicians endlessly stress the need to downsize government, they remain largely silent as the number of bullshit jobs goes right on growing. This results in scenarios where, on the one hand, governments cut back on useful jobs in sectors like healthcare, education, and infrastructure – resulting in unemployment – while on the other investing millions in the unemployment industry of training and surveillance whose effectiveness has long been disproven.
The modern marketplace is equally uninterested in usefulness, quality, and innovation. All that really matters is profit. Sometimes that leads to marvelous contributions, sometimes not. From telemarketers to tax consultants, there’s a rock-solid rationale for creating one bullshit job after another: You can net a fortune without ever producing a thing.
In this situation, inequality only exacerbates the problem. The more wealth is concentrated at the top, the greater the demand for corporate attorneys, lobbyists, and high-frequency traders. Demand doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all; it’s the product of a constant negotiation, determined by a country’s laws and institutions, and, of course, by the people who control the purse strings.
Maybe this is also a clue as to why the innovations of the past 30 years – a time of spiraling inequality – haven’t quite lived up to our expectations. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” mocks Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s resident intellectual. If the postwar era gave us fabulous inventions like the washing machine, the refrigerator, the space shuttle, and the pill, lately it’s been slightly improved iterations of the same phone we bought a couple years ago.
In fact, it has become increasingly profitable not to innovate. Imagine just how much progress we’ve missed out on because thousands of bright minds have frittered away their time dreaming up hypercomplex financial products that are ultimately only destructive. Or spent the best years of their lives duplicating existing pharmaceuticals in a way that’s infinitesimally different enough to warrant a new patent application by a brainy lawyer so a brilliant PR department can launch a brand-new marketing campaign for the not-so-brand-new drug.
Imagine that all this talent were to be invested not in shifting wealth around, but in creating it. Who knows, we might already have had jetpacks, built submarine cities, or cured cancer.
Things are not this pessimistic. There has been some progress but yes not as game changing as those that gave us piped water, hygiene/sanitation etc.
Though, there is a point about hype around financial sector and the value it brings to the table. They are not all destructive as author says but surely not worth all the value which the finance people think of it to be. Infact, most jobs in financial sector are routine stuff and barely require both too much staff and long hours.
But all we see is both of these especially long hours. It has become fashionable to sit for long hours in financial sector post regular office time. This is seen as a way to show one is working whereas nothing could be further from truth. Barring those who are involved in looking at settlements which means checking accounts post closure of market hours, no one really is required to sit late. However, both those who do transactions and those who settled them come at the same early morning hours and leave as late. There could be more flexibility allowing former to leave early and latter to come late.
With so much bullshitting around, it is unlikely these things can change anytime soon..