Can Creating New Jobs Actually Be a Bad Thing?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bullshit Jobs" by David Graeber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can creating new jobs cause problems in society? Why does job creation sometimes result in useless jobs?

According to anthropology professor David Graeber, useless jobs have become widespread in most modern societies. He claims that creating new jobs, while beneficial when done responsibly, can also cause the proliferation of useless jobs for economic and political reasons.

Keep reading to learn how creating new jobs can also produce meaningless jobs, according to Graeber.

Useless Job Creation in Industrialized Countries

According to David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobsa culture of work for work’s sake and the necessity of jobs for distributing income have created a society of meaningless bureaucratic tedium. He claims that creating new jobs frivolously in industrialized countries has given rise to purposeless work and unhappy workers. In this article, we’ll explore Graeber’s explanations as to why there are so many useless jobs in industrialized nations. We’ve divided his causes into two broad categories: economic and political.

Economic Reasons

Graeber defines two core economic reasons why there are so many useless jobs in industrialized countries. First, he discusses the role of automation, then he explains how an economy that prioritizes wealth extraction enables the proliferation of useless jobs.

#1: Automation Has Reduced the Need for Work

Graeber argues that automation in industrialized societies has reduced the need for labor, so there simply isn’t as much useful work to be done by humans. He contends that technological advances in manufacturing and software now allow industrial nations to fulfill their material needs without their entire workforce contributing a full workweek. However, instead of reducing workers’ hours or allowing part of the population to subsist without working, industrial economies have simply created unnecessary jobs to keep the entire workforce employed—even though many of these jobs actually contribute very little value to society.

He cites early 20th-century economists who argued that by now, automation ought to have created mass unemployment. Graeber contends that their predictions have mostly come true—it’s just that industrial societies have solved this problem by creating lots of useless jobs.

Does Automation Create Mass Unemployment?

The impact of automation on employment has been widely debated by economists, technology experts, and forecasters. Some economists argue that automation will not lead to mass unemployment. They point out that new technologies also create new types of industries that will need skilled employees. They also contend that robots will still cost money to produce and therefore may not be economical to deploy in every possible niche. 

Those who are more worried about the effects of automation on employment point out that even if automation won’t eliminate all jobs, it will hit some sectors of employment much harder than others. Business owners will see greater profits as their costs of labor drop, but the automation of industries like customer service, transportation, and manufacturing will force large numbers of workers to change jobs at once. They warn that this will be highly disruptive, as many workers won’t have the skills or education to move into more secure fields.

#2: Wealth Extraction

Graeber contends that many useless jobs are created because the most well-resourced industries aren’t actually producing anything. He argues that in wealthy, capitalist societies, the investors who control most of the capital are more interested in extracting wealth than producing it. 

Producing wealth would include things like manufacturing goods or harvesting raw materials that would increase the number of useful goods for people. On the other hand, extracting wealth involves siphoning off value that others have created. For example, a company that researches and develops a new medicine would be creating wealth, whereas a company that buys up patents on existing medicines just to collect fees from manufacturers would be extracting wealth.

Graeber argues that those who control the supply of investment capital are investing heavily in wealth extraction because they’re the ones who benefit. Therefore, the companies they own invest their labor power in sprawling bureaucratic administrations designed to support this siphoning of wealth. This creates a sprawling, managerial workforce that adds little value to society—a breeding ground for useless jobs.

Does the Finance Sector Serve a Purpose?

In arguing that investment capital doesn’t “produce” things, Graeber is drawing heavily on Marxist ideas about class struggle. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx argues that economies can be divided into two classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He argues that the bourgeoisie owns all the land and factories, and they get money simply by owning these rather than contributing any labor value themselves. Therefore, their role could be eliminated without reducing prosperity.

However, Adam Smith, writing in The Wealth of Nations, argues that investment capital increases productivity. He argues that investment capital supplies workers with the tools and raw materials that they might not have been able to afford on their own. This allows them to be much more productive, thereby increasing a nation’s total prosperity. 

That said, since the 2008 financial crisis, even supporters of the financial sector have argued that it can become too big. These critics assert that while societies need the finance sector to lend capital to businesses, there’s a tipping point at which continued growth in this sector provides diminishing returns for national prosperity. They also worry about an overgrown finance sector pulling intellectual talent away from other fields like scientific research, where experts may make greater contributions.

Political Reasons

Graeber also identifies two political reasons why the governments of industrial societies would condone—even support—the creation of useless jobs. He argues they have two key incentives: maintaining jobs for the sake of pleasing their constituents and maintaining political stability by keeping the population occupied.

#1: “Job Creation” for Its Own Sake

Graeber argues that politicians have a vested interest in maintaining jobs to please their constituents. Policies that the public sees as “protecting” or “creating” jobs tend to be more popular than those seen as “eliminating” jobs. Because politicians need to keep winning elections to stay in power, they have an incentive to choose these popular policies. Therefore, a politician will likely enact policies that “create” or “protect” jobs even if those jobs themselves serve no purpose. 

For example, in debates over cutting military spending or reforming healthcare, politicians will argue that workers depend on these programs to provide them with employment. These often take precedence over arguments that the program employing people serves some essential function or adds value to society. Graeber argues that this reveals that politicians tacitly acknowledge these jobs could be eliminated and are maintaining useless jobs simply for the sake of providing workers with income.

Should Governments Make Jobs for People?

While Graeber argues that politicians have a vested interest in supporting programs that employ people, explicit job creation programs have been controversial. By this, we mean programs like the Works Progress Administration, implemented during the Great Depression to employ people by funding public projects like public roads and buildings.

Supporters have argued that government jobs programs give people an income, fund important projects that the private sector might ignore, and provide workers with job training and skills. However, critics of “make work” programs argue that they are diverting wealth that could be spent more effectively by the private sector. They also argue that many government employees need complex skills, and that those who are currently unemployed may not be an ideal fit.

That said, many see present government activities as simply job creation programs by another name. The two largest employers in the world are the United States and Chinese militaries, respectively. By avoiding the label of “job creation” programs, governments are able to achieve the same results as other government employment programs—employing lots of workers with government funds—while bypassing public controversy.

#2: Keeping People Occupied

Furthermore, Graeber argues that politicians have a vested interest in keeping people occupied to stave off revolutions and maintain their power. Mass unemployment has historically produced major upheavals, including revolutions. Not only does unemployment deprive people of an income and make them desperate, but it also gives them time to organize themselves and devote their energy to political causes. Politicians can therefore maintain stability in society, and their own power, by simply giving everyone something to do—even if the tasks themselves serve no purpose. 

(Shortform note: Graeber argues that politicians keep people occupied to stave off revolutions and maintain their power. However, historians differ on the causes of political revolutions. Some argue that they occur when a government fails to respond effectively to a crisis, so the public takes matters into its own hands. Others have maintained revolutions are caused by conflict between elites: While the masses may participate in revolutions, they rarely organize them. Other historians have maintained that revolutions occur when a society has made steady progress and advancement in quality of life, only to experience a sudden reversal. Then the public overthrows the social order to keep from losing what they’ve gained.)

Can Creating New Jobs Actually Be a Bad Thing?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Bullshit Jobs summary:

  • Why many jobs in contemporary industrial societies provide no value to society
  • How to tell if a job is pointless and the types and characteristics of pointless jobs
  • How universal basic income would eliminate the need for pointless jobs

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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