Article “Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs” by David Graeber

In the year 1930, 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. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, 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.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (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).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and 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. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is exactly what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.  Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.



Edited by: Sena Sarıhasan

Article “How I deal with sexual harassment in tech” by Gillian Morris

A few years ago, I gave a pitch at a startup event and a young man came up to me afterwards.

He was looking to transition from his work in consulting to something in ‘tech’. I’d been a consultant before learning to code and starting Hitlist. He asked if he could buy me a coffee and learn about how I’d made the transition from consultant to founder.

I proposed we grab a beer instead. I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t like taking non-business related meetings during the day. In my previous jobs it had been common to mix business and beer, so I didn’t think much of it.

We ended up having a few beers. We talked about the practical concerns of how to downsize from a consultant paycheck to startup salary, but then the conversation began to branch out.

We talked about our personal goals, our appetite for adventure, our past relationships and how we managed work/life balance.

I realized I was incredibly attracted to him. I felt like I was getting similar vibes from him, though it might have been the beer. And then he asked me if I’d ever consider bringing him onto the Hitlist team.

It wasn’t a total shock. He’d said he was interested in working in startups, I was hiring, and I’d gone into the evening thinking I’d assess him as a potential candidate. I didn’t realize that I was going to end up with a crush on him.

I suggested we meet on a Saturday afternoon to dive into our business model and figure out if there might be a role for him at Hitlist.

That Saturday, we tore apart the pitch deck I’d been using to raise money and came up with something that was, conservatively, ten times better. We got fired up about where Hitlist could go. We laughed, and I wondered whether he was flirting with me, and whether that was clouding my judgment.

I sent one of my advisors the revised pitch deck and he agreed that the young man would make a great addition to the team. I was conflicted because I knew one thing without a doubt: if I offered him a job there was no way I could explore the personal side of our relationship.

And I’m human. We got along well. He had a great butt. Could I have this guy work for me without the attraction side of things driving me nuts?

How is that even a question?

Of course I could. I’m an adult, not an animal. It would have been completely inappropriate for me to hit on someone who had come to me for professional advice and a job.

I knew that it might be distracting to employ someone who I found so appealing but the ethics of making a move on him were so black and white that there wasn’t a choice. And I wasn’t going to let a good candidate walk out the door because he happened to be attractive.

This is what gets me about all these ‘code of conduct’ pieces that have been coming out in recent days: I don’t understand why this is so hard for people to grasp.

If someone comes to you for advice, applies for a job, and/or pitches you for funding, don’t hit on that person.

Am I saying that workplace romances can never happen? No, but if you’re the person in a position of authority, you don’t initiate them, full stop.

If your subordinate makes a move on you, you two can discuss the ramifications like adults and decide whether you want to have a romantic relationship (or be friends with benefits, whatever).

That discussion should happen when you both have clear judgment, i.e. not at 3am at a conference when either or both of you have had alcohol. And that expression of interest from your subordinate should be crystal clear: an invitation to grab a beer is not a date unless he or she explicitly says it is.

In the words Anjali Kumar, founding general counsel at Warby Parker, former senior counsel at Google, and current angel investor:

Edited by: Sena Sarıhasan

Article on Immigration by David Sax

Last fall, I took a taxi home from the airport in Toronto. As the conversation with the young driver moved on from the weather, I asked how he got into driving. He was a Punjabi from India, a member of an immigrant group that tends to dominate jobs at the city’s airport. He had moved to Canada two years earlier, when he was twenty-seven, and now drove his uncle’s Lincoln Town Car several nights a week, while studying engineering at a nearby university.

I asked him how he liked the school, which was reputed to be the best in the country for engineering. “The school is great,” he said, “but it’s kind of pointless for me. I know everything they’re teaching, because I did it all before back home.” In India, he already had a degree from one the country’s top engineering schools, and had spent several years working there for the global engineering firm Siemens, as a mechanical engineer. “You see that train there?” he asked me, pointing at the new express train linking the airport to the city’s downtown passing overhead. “I designed, built, and maintained airport trains exactly like that back in India. Now, I have to finish my degree just to apply for an internship with Siemens here. It’s insane!”

Our conversation happened just two weeks after the election of Donald Trump, who last month backed sweeping changes to America’s own immigration system. At the heart of this is the raise Act, proposed by Republicans senators, which would move the United States from an immigration system that focusses on family reunification to one that prioritizes skills and experiences suited to the job market. Though Trump’s primary motivation may be cutting legal immigration to the United States by as much as half, the core of the raise Act has frequently been compared to the Canadian immigration system.

If you want to immigrate to Canada, and do not have some other form of entry (such as refugee status, as hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers now housed in tent camps along the U.S. border are claiming), you can apply for the Federal Skilled Worker program, which ranks applicants based on a hundred-point scale. Points are awarded based on how an applicant matches up with the current needs of the Canadian job market: education, work experience, age, a spouse’s qualifications, whether a person has a job offer here, proficiency in English or French, and whether that person already has family in Canada. Those with scores of sixty-seven or above qualify, and are sent an invitation to apply to a specific program. Acceptance, however, is by no means guaranteed.

The system is lauded around the world as fair and effective, and successive governments, especially that of Justin Trudeau, love to brag about its basis in making Canada a land where immigrants are encouraged to come and prosper. The country is second only to Australia, which has its own points-based system, for the percentage of its population that is foreign born. Shouldn’t countries choose the best and brightest candidates to live there, the logic goes, just like a company would seek the absolute brightest person to fill a job?

The problem is how the lofty rhetoric that surrounds Canada’s points-based immigration system contrasts with the reality on the ground. As that young taxi driver’s tale highlighted, there is a tremendous disconnect between the way Canada brings people into the country and how their talents are applied after they arrive. More often than not, the taxi driver’s story is the norm rather than the exception. Pakistani and Indian engineers, Polish accountants, and Colombian teachers drive cars, fold laundry, and sling shawarma late into the night. Talented individuals are brought to Canada for their skills and experience, only to find those skills ignored once they land here.

Immigrants to Canada in their first ten years are more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population, according to government statistics. That applies even when the immigrants are college-educated, compared to those native born with only a high-school diploma. Among those who have jobs, only a quarter of Canada’s immigrants are working in the fields they trained in, compared to more than sixty per cent for native-born citizens. A government report in 2013 showed that more than a third of recent immigrants to Canada were living in poverty, particularly in immigrant-heavy cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where half of residents are foreign born. The problem has become so acute that policymakers have coined a specific term for this phenomenon of squandered immigrant intellectual talent: brain waste.

The reasons why Canada’s skilled immigrants struggle so mightily are numerous. Immigrants lack the professional and social networks that native job-seekers have, and their knowledge of local markets and practices are understandably limited. Many professions are protected by unions and guilds that erect significant barriers to entry. I have two friends who were successful lawyers in Mexico and Israel, respectively, but who, once they moved here, found that their experience was essentially useless in the eyes of the Law Society of Upper Canada, which is the Canadian equivalent of the American Bar Association, and the Canadian law firms that operate under its rules. Both had to return to law school, at great cost, for several years, all while raising young children, only to compete in the same apprenticeship program with twenty-five-year-olds who were fresh out of law school—all before they were even allowed to bill a single hour.

Professional standards do vary around the world, and no one is keen to go under the knife of a cardiac surgeon who just arrived from a distant country without having her qualifications thoroughly vetted. But I also know of a Canadian cardiac surgeon who trained at the finest teaching hospital in New York, then moved back to Toronto and was made to requalify over several months under strict supervision, as if the practice of cardiovascular medicine in Canada were so radically different from professional norms just a hundred miles to the south. An orthopedic surgeon I met in Argentina lasted just two years after he moved his family to Winnipeg, before his frustration at being unable to practice led him to return the whole family to Buenos Aires. While a shortage of health-care workers continues to plague rural Canadian communities, more than half the foreign-born doctors living in Canada are not practicing medicine, according to figures compiled by academics Michel Girgnon, Yaw Owusu, and Arthur Sweetman. And while some of these people end up finding work in other areas of health care, other medical professionals, including nurses, pharmacists, and and even E.R. surgeons, are driving for Uber, or operating a gas station that they bought when they ran out of other options.

Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, has been studying this problem in Canada’s immigration system for years. Reitz said that it emerged very shortly after the country adopted a skills-based immigration system, in the nineteen-seventies. “People’s skills are not being used when they immigrate,” Reitz told me, noting that there has actually been a slow decline in the employment success of skilled immigrants over the past forty years, despite the government raising the level of skills that it wants immigrants to have. “The problem of underutilized skills has actually gotten worse,” he said, noting that this could be fertile breeding ground for the sort of anti-immigrant sentiment that Canada has not yet seen. “If immigrants are stumbling and not doing well, then it may eventually undermine the success of the [skilled] immigration program.”

Often, the system falls short on what is broadly defined as “culture fit.” This is the shorthand for the kinds of stereotyping, subtle racism, and general conservatism that some employers have regarding those who look, speak, or think differently than they do. When my wife worked as a corporate headhunter, she was often asked by clients not to send in “new Canadians” as candidates to finance jobs, even if they had worked at investment banks in cities like Singapore, because of a lack of “Canadian experience.” This is a tidy euphemism for “no immigrants wanted,” especially if they are dark-skinned or if English is not their first language.

No society can perfectly cherry-pick the immigrants it needs and have them fit neatly into all the open slots in its economy, like pegs in a hole. Migration is messy; people’s lives aren’t easily tallied as points; and no culture ever fits together perfectly. Behind this notion lies the false belief that we can be like Dubai, bringing in only the wealthiest, best, and brightest, as though immigrants were something to be ordered off a menu.

“In both Canada and the U.S., when you have skilled immigrants with university degrees, they struggle,” Reitz said, noting that the same problem already exists in the United States, though it is dwarfed by issues around illegal immigration. The key, he said, is that the children of skilled immigrants do well, in what he deems “a kind of delayed positive impact.”

The economic reality is that all countries, including Canada, need a wide variety of immigrants from different national, educational, and vocational backgrounds. Despite what Trump says, skilled immigrants, but also unskilled ones, are needed.


Edited by: Sena Sari