The Allure of Real Work

Fenaison de juillet 1955 chez Joseph à Forrières

Life Skills and Positive Activities Officer; Woodfuel Development Officer; Cheerleading Development Officer; Healthy Walks Coordinator; Play and Communication Worker; Bouncy Castle Attendant.[i] This is just a small selection of some of the many so-called ‘non-jobs’ cited by the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph in recent years. No clear definition of non-job has been offered, although the think tank and pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), which has campaigned vigorously on the issue, has described them as “jobs of dubious value”.[ii] Essentially, they’re jobs deemed to be completely pointless, and it’s not hard to see why certain sections of the press love talking about them. Long lists of peculiar-sounding job titles serve as further confirmation for many people that Britain’s glory days are behind her. Once the proud ‘workshop of the world’, inhabited by legions of skilled craftsmen and engineers, today, too many of this country’s people are reduced to earning their daily bread in increasingly ludicrous ways, filling up roles that, rightfully, should not even exist. Non-jobs—you couldn’t make them up.

It is tempting to simply dismiss this view as just another worn-out media parable of economic, cultural and moral decline.  However others, writing from very different perspectives, have also pointed to the apparent futility of much contemporary work. Just over a year ago, the anthropologist and activist David Graeber provoked much comment and interest with a piece published in the radical newspaper Strike! Magazine in which he discussed the rise of what he termed “bullshit jobs”.[iii] Like non-jobs, these are seemingly pointless roles which needn’t really exist, but have nevertheless grown hugely in number over recent decades:

…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 it 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.[iv]

These two narratives, ‘non-jobs’ and ‘bullshit jobs’, clearly share a deep misgiving about the apparent growth of pointless, trivial work in the modern world, which represents not only a tremendous waste of time, effort and money, but also seems to threaten the well-being of those who undertake it. But in order for these two negative accounts to truly make sense, there must be a positive category lurking somewhere in the background. If so much work today is pointless or nonsensical, as these writers suggest, there must be examples, or at least an idea, of what work is not nonsensical and pointless, that is of genuine value or worth. Given the implication of falsity inherent in the prefixes ‘non’ and ‘bullshit’, let’s call this positive category ‘real work’: work of an altogether higher status, of genuine importance, that elevates it above other examples of its kind. This notion clearly has an ideal, normative aspect to it, the implication being that ‘this is what work should be like’, yet it needn’t be a mere fantasy: people can (and, as we will see, do) point to actually existing forms of work that they take as their paradigm.


Usefulness and necessity

How then do people conceive of real work? What standards or criteria do they apply to determine what counts and what doesn’t? A good place to start thinking about this is with the (closely-related) standards of necessity and usefulness—standards that work is frequently held to. Some might claim that real work is simply that which leads to the production of things that are necessary or of genuine use to human beings. Any work that is not concerned with necessary or useful production is a waste of time—it may look or feel like work in some ways, but it’s essentially a false, sham form of work. On the face of it, this seems to be the argument being made in the ‘non-jobs’ and ‘bullshit jobs’ narratives outlined above. Is a ‘Roller Disco Coach’ of any actual use to anyone in Windsor and Maidenhead?[v] Do the good people of Lewisham really need a ‘Community Engagement Apprentice’?[vi] This is what the Daily Mail seems to be asking us. Similarly, Graeber points to the legions of corporate lawyers and PR people taking up office space and asks us—are these people really of any use to anyone, except perhaps to a tiny elite at the top of society? Wouldn’t it be better if they did something else, or maybe even nothing at all?

These writers are not, of course, the first to write about the importance of basic usefulness in work. In the late nineteenth century, William Morris wrote on the subject of ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’. For Morris, far too much of the back-breaking work that the industrial working class of his time engaged in was wasteful and pointless, directed for the most part towards either the production of trifles and luxuries for the rich, or low-quality, adulterated goods for the poor. In his view, “…labour, to be attractive, must be directed towards some obviously useful end”.[vii] Such ‘useful ends’ are commonly conceived of in terms of physical things—goods that human beings require in order to stay alive and lead decent lives. David Graeber certainly seems to place great value on physically productive work and those who engage in it, praising “…that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things”,[viii] in contrast to his city-slicker bullshitters. We could quite happily live without these so-called high-flyers, so the reasoning goes. But take away the farmers, the mechanics, the builders, the bin-men, and we’d quickly find ourselves in a whole lot of trouble.

It doesn’t take long, however, to spot the gaping hole in this argument. As Graeber himself understands, any notion of ‘real’ work restricted to the provision and servicing of our basic material needs is a very dessicated one indeed. Teaching is one example Graeber cites as work of genuine value, yet teachers (generally speaking) don’t make anything useful in the sense that we could eat it, wear it, or live in it. They don’t keep the streets clean or provide us with a fresh water supply. Rather, they help fashion and develop the young minds essential to the future of our civilization. But perhaps more controversially, Graeber also cites science fiction writers and ska musicians as workers of value, at least, of more value than the bullshit types he rails against. Again, like teachers, these people don’t furnish us with anything tangible that we really need to survive—we could get by without them—but his argument is that, through their particular art forms, they give depth and meaning to our lives. Most people would probably agree that, while survival without teachers is technically possible, a world without them would be a pretty terrible one. But a great many would also agree that humanity could not only survive, but flourish without science fiction writers and ska musicians. For Graeber, it all boils down to which types of work contribute to what he terms “social value” and which do not. But what this actually constitutes may be, in many cases, little more than a matter of personal preference: “There can be no objective measure of social value.”[ix]

So what then of the anti-‘non-jobs’ brigade? Is there a concept of real work lurking behind the invective and indignant headlines? Reading through many of the stories in the Mail, Telegraph and the website of the TPA, it’s not always as clear what kinds of work they’re for as much as what they’re against. Certainly, the emphasis is very much on exposing wasteful work that they believe to be unnecessary or of no obvious use to anyone, although we might well challenge some of the examples they pick and ask if they’re not in fact of greater value than their stories claim. One example cited in a Daily Mail story from April 2011 is of an advert for a ‘Family Lifestyles Officer’ in Rugby. The job description states: “Reduce childhood obesity in various ways including the provision of evidence-based structured nine-week family-based workshops promoting the benefits of exercise and nutrition.”[x]  But we might well argue that this job in fact sounds like rather an important one, given the near-constant warnings from scientists and health practitioners about the prevalence of childhood obesity and the problems this can cause later on in life.

Moreover, while some of the examples of non-jobs cited seem more likely to be peculiar anomalies (‘Bouncy Castle Attendant’ probably being one of these), certain types of job crop up again and again in various articles, such as jobs relating to equality and diversity, climate change and the European Union.[xi] Again, it might be countered that, far from being non-jobs, Diversity Officers and Climate Change Officers do very important work within local authorities, perhaps making sure councils comply with legislation relating to these areas. Going further, it might even  be argued that newspapers like the Telegraph and the Mail single out these types of job because the issues they relate to—equality, climate change, the EU—are the major bugbears of the right.  This argument would seem to be strengthened by the London Mayor Boris Johnson’s attack on “politically correct” non-jobs in the Telegraph.[xii]

But while we can (and must) debate the value or usefulness of particular jobs, this doesn’t help us get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. What exactly is it about non-jobs that riles these commentators so much and what would they prefer in their place? The most important point to note is that the ‘non-jobs’ these newspapers discuss are to be found solely in the public sector, most often in local government. They are contrasted (unfavourably) with so-called ‘frontline services’, which, like non-jobs themselves, are not clearly defined but denote supposedly more useful roles, including people from library staff to lollipop ladies, depending on which article you read.[xiii] The impression is given of a bloated and profligate state, wasting bucket-loads of taxpayers’ money on pointless non-jobs, when its focus should be solely on the genuinely essential, the useful, the front-line—on the real work, we might say.

But this still isn’t quite the whole picture. The non-jobs argument cannot be considered a simple one about useful versus useless work, because it is only talking about a specific and comparatively small proportion of the total work undertaken in the country. Those at the Mail, The Telegraph and the TPA who write about non-jobs make virtually no mention of work in the private sector. It’s as if we can take it for granted that the work that goes on there is valid and important and that we do not need to keep an eye out for wasteful employment in the same way as we do for the public sector. These writers would probably argue that, although there may be something akin to non-jobs in the private sector too, it’s simply no one else’s business what line of work private individuals select, or whom they choose to employ. By contrast, what goes on in the public sector is all of our business, because it’s us who pay the taxes that pay for these workers. As such, so the argument goes, the state has a duty to spend money well and efficiently, and to employ only those people that we really need.

But I also think there’s another assumption hidden in these arguments: a belief in the effectiveness and legitimacy of the market as an arbiter of the value of work. If you choose to sell your labour on the open market as, say, a farmer, you might produce nutritious life-sustaining food for thousands of people—an undeniably useful and worthwhile line of work, we might all agree. But, equally, if you choose to sell your labour as a private roller disco coach, that’s fine too. If you can find a market out there to sustain your business, then fair play to you, you’re a success, you’ve found a gap in the market and who am I to question your value to humanity? Just don’t expect the local council to employ you to do the same thing, because the moment you sign on the state payroll, we’ll start asking difficult questions about how useful you really are. In other words, the non-jobs critics only apply the standard of direct usefulness to the public sector, not to the private. In the latter realm, it’s the market that decides what work gets done.


Money and exchange

In trying to tease apart this argument, it’s important to state that I’m not necessarily saying there’s anything wrong with it (I might think that there is, but that’s irrelevant right now). I certainly won’t be writing to my local council anytime soon asking them to take on more bouncy castle attendants. What I am saying though, is that it’s worth looking more closely at many of the things people say about work in order to understand what’s actually being said. What may seem like common sense arguments about getting rid of silly, useless jobs actually reveal deeper and more complex assumptions about what work is important or worthwhile, what work isn’t and how we go about making these judgements in the first place. Moreover, as we have seen, categories like ‘usefulness’ and ‘necessity’ are far from as straightforward as they might at first seem.

The key point underlying all of this is that we don’t live in an idealized, self-contained medieval commune, where the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker have their clearly-defined roles to provide for the community’s clearly-defined basic ‘needs’. We live in a vast, modern exchange economy, where money is king. The game is to sell a type of labour that is in high demand and commands the largest possible cash returns. Many individuals may choose not to play this game, instead choosing a type of work that they find personally fulfilling, or that allows them greater free time outside of the workplace. But scaling the whole issue up, most states definitely do want to play this game—they want to develop the types of industries, and hence, the forms of work, that will help move them up the value chain towards a higher level of economic development. This seems to be a point that is missing in Graeber’s analysis. While he derides corporate law and public relations as ‘bullshit’, the countries which contain more of these sorts of workers tend to be the richer, more materially developed ones, while those which concentrate on the fulfilment of more rudimentary needs, e.g. subsistence farming, tend to be poorer. Generally speaking, states want to move beyond these more basic types of primary and secondary production to more sophisticated, knowledge-intensive services and high-end manufacturing. They don’t really care in any higher sense how useful this is to humanity, although it must be said that being a rich country seems pretty ‘useful’ in all sorts of ways: richer countries tend to have higher life expectancies, as well as better education and healthcare systems.

We don’t have to like any of this and we certainly need to question why certain types of work are valued in the way that they are. It’s also important not to abandon questions about the fundamental usefulness of the work that we do, even though we must recognise the complexity and difficulties of such a category. But nor do I think it wise to rush head first down the ‘sack all the corporate lawyers and replace them with mechanics’ route and assume that this would solve all our problems. Like it or not, many economies now depend on professions like these to keep the GDP levels up and the tax receipts flowing in. This is not to abandon hope for a different kind of economy, just a recognition of where we are.

The non-jobs of the Mail and David Graeber’s bullshit jobs are just two examples that cast light on the idea of ‘real’ work. Ironically, the more we pursue this essentialist notion, the more we become aware of the plurality and diversity of potential versions or accounts of it—the less we feel there is actually any such thing as real work ‘out there’ to discover. Some people might continue to cling to the belief that they know what work is really all about, that they know the true criteria for judging its worth. But I think the idea is best understood as a way of thinking, or a set of assumptions that we hold (consciously or unconsciously) about work and its meaning. These ways of thinking may be complex and rigorous, or little more than simple prejudices; they may be related to broader worldviews, ideologies and religions, or they may stand alone. But I think the idea of real work holds an attraction or allure for so many of us because such a large proportion of our adult lives is spent on activities we call ‘work’ and we want to know that our time is spent well on something truly worthwhile. Nor should we discount human beings’ seemingly endless desire to rise above and look down on their fellows. Feeling like you’re leaving the house every morning to do something truly worthwhile and important while the guy next door is wasting his energies on some pointless, silly project makes us feel good about ourselves (sadly).


Why real work and why now?

As we have seen, such debates about work are by no means new. People of all sorts and all stations in life have debated the value of work for centuries. But there have been enormous changes over the course of the last hundred years or so that have served to intensify these debates. The growth of the state, with its attendant powers to employ people—in effect, to create work—has spawned arguments, like that over ‘non-jobs’, about the value and necessity of that which has been created. More recently, the transformation many Western societies have undergone from being industrial manufacturing economies to post-industrial service economies has drastically changed the nature of the work the great majority of people engage in. From standing on production lines or hewing rock down coal mines, most people’s experience of work in a country like Britain today is more likely to be standing behind a shop counter, or sitting at a desk gazing into a computer screen. While some might celebrate the decline of hard physical labour, arguably one of the prices we have paid for this change has been greater uncertainty and anxiety about the ultimate worth of the work we do, partly due to the fact that clear outcomes seem harder to come by. In his book The Case for Working with Your Hands, the philosopher Matthew Crawford describes quitting his well-paid job as Head of a Washington think tank to set up shop as a motorcycle repair man: “I was always tired, and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all—what tangible goods or useful services was I providing to anyone?”[xiv]

Running closely alongside this shift to the post-industrial economy has been the rising participation of women in the labour market and an attendant decline of the traditional distinction between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’. In many instances, this latter sphere of work, confined largely to the home, was not only unpaid but completely undervalued in any sense—relegated to an altogether lower status than the supposedly ‘real’ work engaged in by men, despite the fact that such work could be just as back-breaking. The changing position of women in society and their experience of work has raised a whole host of different responses, ranging from those who completely deride the notion of housework and urge women to seek fulfilment in the labour market, to those who urge greater recognition for women (and indeed men) who decide to stay at home to raise children.[xv]

The task of mapping all the contours of real work and exploring the multiple versions and permutations of the concept is a considerable project, which this short article can only hope to introduce. What I believe, though, is that a great many of us cling to our own ideas about what’s worthwhile and valuable in work, perhaps with sincerity and conviction, or perhaps, more depressingly, because we feel a deep need to justify our own existence to ourselves and those around us in an era when our needs, wants and how we fulfil them seem like increasingly complex issues. What this brief analysis hopefully does show is that the concept of real work is worth exploring, and plays a greater role in our individual and collective lives than we often realise.



[i] Daniel Martin, ‘Positive activities officer wanted: ‘Irresponsible councils still recruiting for non-jobs despite cutting frontline services’’, Mail Online (11 April 2011) available online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1375468/Public-sector-cuts-Ccouncils-recruiting-non-jobs-despite-frontline-service-cuts.html> accessed 20 October 2014; Andrew Porter, ‘War on thousands of localborough council ‘non-jobs’, The Telegraph (17 February 2011) available online   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8332107/War-on-thousands-of-local-borough-council-non-jobs.html  accessed 20 October 2014; Sophie Borland, ‘NHS squanders £46m on ‘non-jobs’: Investigation finds there are more than 1,200 staff in unnecessary roles with salaries of up to £90,000’, Mail Online (31 March 2014) available online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2593799/NHS-squanders-46m-non-jobs-Investigation-finds-1-200-staff-unnecessary-roles-salaries-90-000.html> accessed 20 October 2014.

[ii] Tax Payers’ Alliance, ‘Research Note 43: Annual Non-Jobs Report 2008’, available online <http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/Non-Job%20Report%202008.pdf> accessed 20 October 2014.

[iii] David Graeber, ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’, Strike! Magazine (17 August 2013), available online <http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/> accessed 20 October 2014.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] James Chapman, ‘Revealed: Labour’s crazy town hall ‘non-jobs’ , including the walking co-ordinator on £32,000-a-year and the roller disco coach’, Mail Online (18 February 2011) available online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1358144/Labours-3m-town-hall-jobs-bonanza-employed-deliver-frontline-services.html> accessed 20 October 2011.

[vi] Richard Waghorne, ‘How your money’s STILL being wasted on pointless PC jobs’, Mail Online (26 July 2010), available online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1294816/How-moneys-STILL-wasted-pointless-PC-jobs.html> accessed 20 October 2014.

[vii] William Morris, Useful work v. Useless Toil (Penguin Books: London, 2008), p.19.

[viii][viii] Graeber, ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Martin, ‘Positive activities officer wanted’.

[xi] ‘Research Note 77: Council savings: unnecessary jobs’, Tax Payers’ Alliance (12 October 2010), available online <http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/unnecessaryjobs.pdf> accessed 3 November 2014, draws attention to these three roles, as well as to “Political Advisor2s; Borland, ‘NHS squanders £46m on ‘non-jobs’’, claims that the NHS squanders “£3.5million on ‘green’ staff and £6.8million on equality and diversity staff” per year; Jasper Copping, ‘’Non-jobs’ gravy train rolls on for councils’, TheTelegraph (10 April 2011) available online <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8440079/Non-jobs-gravy-train-rolls-on-for-councils.html> accessed 3 November 2014, mentions “equality officers” and “climate change staff”.

[xii] Boris Johnson, ‘Slash public sector non-jobs, not power-plants, roads and rail links’, The Telegraph (21 September 2009) available online <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/borisjohnson/6212799/Slash-public-sector-non-jobs-not-power-plants-roads-and-rail-links.html> accessed 3 November 2014.

[xiii] Andrew Allison, ‘The war on non-jobs and waste’ (21 February 2011), available online <http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/waste/2011/02/war-nonjobs.html> accessed 20 October 2014.

[xiv] Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands: or, Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books: London, 2009), pp.4-5.

[xv] The Italian laywer Giulia Bongiorno recently made headlines by proposing  that people who stay at home to do housework while their partners go out into the formal workplace should be paid for their labour. Barbara Ellen, ‘Paid housework? No one’ll clean up from that idea’ (8 March 2014), available online, <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/08/paying-for-housework-domestic-women-men> accessed 20 October 2014.

Tom Barker is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. An extended, academic version of this article is due to appear in the book, Working Ideals: Theory, Meaning and Well-Being, edited by Sigal Nagar-Ron and published by Inter-Disciplinary Press (forthcoming).