A few years ago, an influential book by American anthropologist Graeber spoke of the phenomenon of what the author called “bullshit jobs”, lamenting that “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working” – often in various service sectors. As much as we may not want to admit it, several of our professions fit that description. I myself used to work in advertising, and as much as I enjoyed my time in the field, I will be the first to admit that no Brand Strategist would be on the front lines of a humanitarian crisis (nobody has ever said, “We’re facing a pandemic! Quick, does anyone have access to MS Powerpoint?”).
If there is one thing the current crisis and lockdown have taught us, it’s which professions we as a society consider valuable. A perusal of the list of essential services shared by various state governments is a good start. It is, also, unfortunately, a list of hardly-well-paid to poor professions. Defence personnel and police are woefully underpaid. Delivery personnel of e-commerce companies have become the lifeline of urban India. And the less said about the state of sanitation, the better (in a recent video by Mission Garima, a young boy says of his manual-scavenger father ‘Mera papa desh chalata hai’). A friend of mine is working on a cure for a rare disease and I’m ashamed to say I used to make way more money churning out useless presentations with the aim to part people with their hard-earned money.
And at home, certain realisations are dawning. How many things we have taken for granted – in our scramble to save ₹15 on a biryani, we forget about the person running against the clock, racing through traffic to deliver it. We’ve realised how much work our maids were doing. And of course, we’re realising the importance of medical infrastructure, and are shuddering thinking that it constituted less than 1.3% of India’s GDP (that would be 17.8% in the US, and 6.6% in China). Cocooned safe in our AC rooms outraging over idiots defying the curfew, we are hoping that cops keep people off the road so the 21-day lockdown becomes a success. I’ve never worried so much about what would happen if the garbage collector doesn’t show up the next day. I hope that the streets are being cleaned.
As for what’s happening in the investment banking and hedge fund world? Nah, not so much.
And what about the arts? Film, music and books are what’s been keeping the world entertained through this crisis. I somehow don’t think people are crashing Goldman Sachs website to download and read their latest whitepaper during their spare time. And lastly, how reliant are we on journalists to just keep us up-to-date on what’s happening?
The most unfair part of capitalism as it exists today is how disproportionately it rewards jobs that serve an increasingly narrow part of society. I do not have a problem with such professions, mind – they are difficult and require great skill, and chances are their practitioners are smart, nice people who would be great to have a conversation with. They just go where the money is. If, say, plumbing was the highest-paid profession in the world, you can bet that there would be astonishing innovation in the field of personal sanitation (maybe one of them can even convince Americans to use bidets instead of toilet paper!).
It’s a travesty, then, that the smartest brains today are in “bullshit jobs” – sure, they keep the economy chugging, but they do nothing to solve the larger problems that plague society – income inequality, climate change, xenophobia – possibly even adding to them. As the ex-Facebook engineer Jeff Hammerbacher said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. Imagine what those minds and talent could have been doing in renewable energy, lab-grown meat or even public policy. Granted, a lot of what Silicon Valley has given us in the last few decades has been a net positive for society, but you can’t help but thinking that the explosive growth of Big Tech have come at the expense of other sectors that, arguably, needed the talent more.
Why travel as far as California when we can see this happening at home? My engineering college batch in the mid-oughties was scrambling to get placed in high-paying IT jobs, forsaking core engineering for which we all received a highly subsidized education (I paid ₹4000 a year to become a Chemical Engineer). What a raw deal for the taxpayer – imagine if all those IITians had chosen to work in infrastructure and biotechnology rather than being wooed by the allure of a high-paying post-MBA job (which would, invariably, be counted as a ‘bullshit job’ as defined in the beginning of this essay). As beneficial as the IT boom has been for India’s image and middle class, I can’t help but think how the pure sciences have suffered as a result of it.
And what of our constant denigration of anything to do with the arts? Which Indian middle-class family is comfortable with their child’s decision to pursue music, photography (3 Idiots, anyone?), film studies or even journalism – all of which are vital for us today? When a country invests in its arts – like the US and Scandinavia have done – it becomes a net positive for society, providing a safety net for those who choose to pursue it.
My point is this: The coronavirus-induced lockdown of the world will clearly show us what is dispensable and what’s not. Currently, many of us would be willing to do with less financial analysts if it means more delivery personnel, and would be happy to trade a social media manager for nurses.
My hope – and I realise this is highly optimistic – once this whole thing blows over, the world will recognize and reward the jobs and people that actually matter. That means more medical schools and incentives for aspirants. More laboratory facilities and better-paying research jobs. Better pay structures for drivers, delivery boys and maids. Farmers finally getting their due. If it comes at the expense of my presentations making me less money, so be it.
I read an amazing forward by someone who said “So if I’ve understood capitalism correctly, when this whole thing is over, all doctors will become millionaires, right?”
What a fair world would it be, if this were to be true. “Bullshit jobs” can continue to exist. It’s just that our fascination should be trained elsewhere.
Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising till his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.
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