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  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 6:44pm
Monitor
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 3:09am

Ask yourself this morning: Is my job a load of billshut?

The conspiracy view that the ruling class devised pointless work for the masses may be off the mark, but so is Keynes' forecast of 15-hour week

London School of Economics professor David Graeber caused something of a stir last month with an article in Britain's Strike! magazine whose title I shall render euphemistically as "On the phenomenon of billshut jobs".

Strike! proclaims itself a publication of the radical left, dealing in "politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition".

Yet although Graeber's article was peppered with language that could have come from a 1970s revolutionary socialist tract, with references to "the ruling classes" and denunciations of the "profound psychological violence" done to workers by their jobs, there wasn't much either radical or especially left wing about his highly entertaining polemic.

There was, however, a great deal that rang true.

No doubt we have all wondered what HR managers contribute to the world

Graeber set out to solve a puzzle. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the 20th century advances in technology would allow us all to work for just 15 hours a week. Why, wondered the LSE professor, has this prediction so signally failed to come true.

Graeber's answer is that although in developed economies industrial, agricultural and domestic occupations have indeed been automated largely out of existence, they have been replaced by vast numbers of unproductive white-collar jobs that keep millions busy achieving nothing at all.

He decries the ballooning of whole sectors like telemarketing, corporate law, health administration, public relations and human resources.

These are the billshut jobs. "It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working," he writes. "What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear?"

It might sound a novel idea, but Graeber is not the first person to wonder this. As long ago as 1980, the late science fiction satirist Douglas Adams imagined a planet which divided its population into three.

The first group were "the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists … the achievers". The second were "the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things". And the third consisted of everyone else: the unproductive middle consisting of "TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants".

This useless third of the population was packed into a giant spaceship and blasted off on a one-way trip into the blue, while "the other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full rich and happy lives".

Graeber doesn't propose anything so drastic. Instead he asks why it is the developed economies of Europe and North America have got themselves into this ludicrous situation.

This is where he loses the plot. No doubt we have all wondered what it is that human resource managers contribute to the world, and on our darker days it's likely many of us have asked whether our own jobs are really worthwhile.

Few of us, however, can have concluded that it is all a sinister conspiracy designed to keep us in subjugation.

That's what Graeber thinks. He blames the 1 per cent. "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger."

As a result, they have invented all these unproductive jobs to keep us occupied, like hamsters on a wheel. This is nonsense. The proliferation of billshut jobs is not evidence of a conspiracy, but merely Parkinson's Law in operation.

As the great Cyril Northcote Parkinson explained in 1955: "A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure … The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent."

In other words, bang goes any hope of achieving Keynes' 15-hour week.

tom.holland@scmp.com

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jasonbrockwell
Tom has shortened the Douglas Adams quote to remove reverse Adams' meaning:
the unproductive middle consisting of "TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants".
... and telephone sanitisers....
This useless third of the population was packed into a giant spaceship and blasted off on a one-way trip into the blue, while "the other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full rich and happy lives".
... until they were all wiped out by a disease spread by dirty telephones...
bluefirestorm
Probably a lot of office jobs are 15 hour week jobs. It is the salary culture that hasn't changed.
I would think most people in offices are involved in complete time wasting activities things like attending meetings and the pre-meeting meeting (sic), writing/replying to emails; surf the internet, do their social media updates, and maybe the occasional posting to the SCMP comments board.
Technology definitely has aided office workers to appear to be busy.
John Adams
If there's one class of workers who should be shot off to outer space, never to return, it's telemarketers.
Although they can no longer call anonymously with no- caller-ID block, they can still call openly, which leads one to think it's a legitimate business call.
There is nothing more annoying when on an overseas trip to get these calls on one's mobile at unearthly hours, only to find out they are tele-marketers and then also get slapped with a huge mobile roaming fee.
.
Despite recent police warnings to the contrary, I now ask about their mothers in no uncertain terms. It doesn't do much to stop their nuisance calls , but it sure makes me feel a lot better !
Giwaffe
I definitely feel like my job is a billshut job.

It seems that people who perform the role of management within organizations have a tendency to create more and more work in their insatiable quest for profit growth. This means that although technology has progressed and productivity has increased, the amount of work needed to be done never seems to recede. A great example is the endless demand for new or improved “summaries/analyses” or “management reports” to aid in “decision making” or "strategic planning", but all of it is from the same data. Or the demand for convenience in a non-uniform environment.
dunndavid
Some studies have concluded that most people only really work 3 hours a day on average as it is.
There is something condescending about "other peoples" work to call it non-productive. Some things have to be pushed, like insurance, or no one would ever buy an often useful product like insurance.
Telemarketers are not necessarily unproductive although there sales efforts do create a serious disutility (disturbance) of there non-customers.
Many jobs are non-productive but only some of the time. A farmer works very hard at certain times of the year and can afford to be lazy at other times. He like many others is paid for the work he does and the knowledge he applies at critical times.
mankydanky
Time for a survey. Is your job BS or is it just you who thinks it is not?
fsk999
Hardly surprising that the UK now has thousands of **** jobs when for decades it has been promoting **** university degrees.
 
 
 
 
 

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