In another anecdote, last week I overheard a group of UWI students discussing the local On the Job Training Programme or OJT as “OJT=UWI’s Cepep.” Thinking about Cepep and listening to some UWI graduates discuss the poor allocation locally of jobs to skill sets reminded of a 2013 essay written by the anthropologist David Graeber on the subjective value people feel about their pointless jobs.’
Graeber noted that in 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes “predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week.” In technological terms we’ve certainly reached a level capable of this transformation in work hours. So Graeber asks why didn’t it happen?
For Graeber, instead of technology being used to lessen our working hours and free humanity to pursue other purposes, technology was used instead to find “ways to make us all work more.” Graeber then explains for this to be possible, “jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”
For Graeber, this was not some secret conspiracy, with men in a room thinking up pointless jobs, but rather the trial and error steps of capitalism during the 20th century. And it has moral and spiritual consequences for our humanity. In simple terms, Keynes’ prediction never happened because he didn’t foresee the massive rise in consumerism from the 1960s onward.
Instead of working fewer hours, society went in the other direction of needing to work more hours in order to earn the required monies needed to buy the never-ending assortment of more and more toys, goods and consumer items we take for granted today.
The nuance to remember here is the production of these goods is not where the new jobs appeared. For example, the new make-work jobs have very little to do with the production of a continuous conveyer belt of smart phones, sneakers, mp3 players and much more, always with a newer model coming out right after the old.
As predicted, these manufacturing jobs were largely automated away. And Graeber’s research points out, “even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.”
No, for Graeber, based on employment data from the US between 1910 and 2000, “the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers tripled, growing from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.”
These new jobs aren’t mostly service sector jobs either. In the US and UK it includes an unheard of expansion of new fields and industries, “including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.”
Alongside this transformation from jobs that produce things to jobs that do not manufacture things, full employment has been developed ideological as a moral necessity. Those who want to work less are seen as bad people or morally corrupted and deserve nothing.
Ironically, it was the state capitalism of pseudo-socialist states like the Soviet Union who believed in full employment for the sake of it. In traditional definitions of capitalism some level of unemployment has always been necessary for competitiveness both as a reserve army of labour and also so new sectors can emerge to generate employment.
Furthermore, as some local economists, in comments made publically about make-work jobs have stated, paying somebody to do nothing—full employment for full employment sake, where the State sucks up the unemployed—alongside a bloated and unneeded corporate and state bureaucracy, does not contribute to a sustainable economy.
So what might be some solutions to this phenomenon of make-work jobs and the politics of full-employment in T&T? Well one forward thinking idea is “basic income,” something I will return to in my next column.