QED

On Being Jobless in Our BS Economy

There is much talk, both in Australia and other Western nations, about the grinding lethargy of the economy, with its low growth, hyper under-employment, at best tepid retail performance, stagnant wages and productivity, and endemic structural joblessness across disadvantaged communities.

There also much talk, especially in the UK and the US, about the great, some suggest unbreachable, divide in society between what David Goodhart has described as “somewheres” and “anywheres”.  These emerging tribes are, respectively, the educated (so-called), connected, mobile, progressive and typically urban globalists on the one hand, and the less educated, rooted in place, often non-city dwelling folks who have experienced rapid change in their communities, often accompanied by economic and social decline. 

According to Goodhart:

 … western politics has had to make room for a new set of voices preoccupied with national borders and pace of change, appealing to people who feel displaced by a more open, ethnically fluid, graduate-favouring economy and society, designed by and for the new elites.

The old distinctions of class and economic interest have not disappeared but are increasingly overlaid by a larger and looser one – between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.

The divide unpacked by Goodhart might be seen as a new version of, or at least have resonance with, Charles Murray’s hypothetical towns Belmont and Fishtown as exemplars of two diametrically opposed trajectories and resultant world views, as expounded in his 2012 epic book Coming Apart. The two phenomena of economic decline and social crankiness are, of course, not unconnected.  They are also under-discussed and are highly problematic for social stability and what we might call a flourishing society.

The political significance of the new divides is clear to some, though not to all.  The Somewheres versus Anywheres political competition in many ways supersedes the old left-right or class-based cleavages, and makes a nonsense of claims by those who, like Tony Abbott (sadly), still see a Liberal Party “broad church” of collaborating “liberals” and “conservatives”.  This is legacy thinking about what are rapidly becoming legacy political parties, which sadly no longer align with and make a home for political interests and values that can no longer be pigeon-holed into economic classes.

The new ruling class, those elites as analysed so eloquently by Angelo Codevilla, occupy commanding heights in all the major parties in Australia and cognate jurisdictions.  These are Anywheres who are globalists and who accept, indeed, champion, progressive pieties on sex, climate change, supranational governance, hyper tech-led innovation, philosophical relativism, mass migration, multiculturalism and the essential goodness of permanent social and cultural revolution.  Think Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the mass media, academia.  They are social liberals and comfortable cosmopolitans who sigh grumpily at the persistent Ssomewheres’ voices who, as Barack Obama explained, cling to their guns and religion and – gasp – the once conventional family.  The Somewheres are patriots who cherish virtue and tradition.  Some even go to church more than twice a year.  Some are white people.  Some are – gasp again – men.  In the US, they would be Trumpers who drove what Michael Anton has perceptively called the “Flight 93 election”, in the UK they would be “Leavers”.  And to the Anywheres, they are deplorables – racists, white supremacists, xenophobes, homophobes, Islamophobes.

The Trump election and its equivalents elsewhere simply make a nonsense of the old ways of conceiving political divisions.  Yet in Australia there is no natural home for Somewheres in either major party, each as it is now dominated by elitist, Anywhere thinking.

The Somewhere and Anywhere groups are distinguishable by both characteristics and beliefs. For models of the new political man, think no further than Malcolm Turnbull, Emmanuel Macron, Barack Obama or George Osborne.  Hence they include capitalists, socialists and those who don’t quite fit either legacy political category, and have emerged from right across the old political divides.  They exude smugness from every pore.  Sadly, the young seem to like and vote for them.  Yet they have encountered pushback in the political realm, as we have seen.  The problem for the Somewheres is this thing called the Deep State, which actually runs our Western countries and has more power over us than elected politicians, and has well and truly captured the commanding heights of our elite institutions in education and the media.  All of these groups form policy communities and networks and work together to keep the excluded, well, excluded.

But let us stick for the moment to the economic and social malaise of joblessness.  An economic problem that has dire social consequences and which has given rise to much of the Somewheres’ alienation from the current political order.

Four separate insights have given me pause to wonder at the edifice that is the modern economy, and whether this entire edifice is built on quicksand.  All four insights say something about joblessness, either directly or indirectly.

The first insight comes from several speakers at the recent National Conservatism conference in America, in particular Mary Eberstadt, JD Vance – author of Hillbilly Elegy – and Tucker Carlson, who touched on the recurring theme of the post 1970s phenomenon of jobless males which has deprived a generation of men of their dignity — the dignity that comes from fulfilling and valued work.  It has caused utter chaos in families and devastated communities, and can be cited plausibly as a remote cause of such pathologies as drugs, pornography addiction, domestic violence, fatherlessness, split families, suicide and much more besides.

Male joblessness in an era in which self-esteem has become all and is typically rendered through valued employment must be seen as a societal disaster.  It has crushed families and sapped the life from neighbourhoods and communities.  It has generated much of the welfare state monster with which we now are saddled.  In Mary Eberstadt’s phrase, it is a lead indicator of “kinship implosion”.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mary Eberstadt’s husband Nicholas has written a book titled Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis . The book argues

… while “unemployment” has gone down, America’s work rate is also lower today than a generation ago—and that the work rate for US men has been spiraling downward for half a century. Astonishingly, the work rate for American males aged twenty-five to fifty-four—or “men of prime working age”—was actually slightly lower in 2015 than it had been in 1940: before the War, and at the tail end of the Great Depression.

Today, nearly one in six prime working age men has no paid work at all—and nearly one in eight is out of the labor force entirely, neither working nor even looking for work. 

As the good townsfolk of South Park, definitive Somewheres all, might well sum it up, “They terk our jerbs”.  Well, you know what?  They did!  And, astonishingly, we don’t like it much.  But this isn’t the whole story.  There is a motivational crisis going on as well as embedded worklessness results from offshoring jobs or jobs taken by migrants.

For Nicholas Eberstadt, men without work is “the new normal”, and a societal crisis – a “quiet calamity”.  The one in six “prime age” (25-54 year old) men now without paid work Eberstadt calls a “Depression scale” disaster.  Seven million men.  And the percentage of men looking for work has declined too, exponentially.

Perhaps the crisis is “invisible” because ageing white males are now seen (certainly by Anywheres) as poor trash, a legacy category, endemically mysogynist and an international embarrassment generally in our Age of Woke. Ageing white males simply do not rate on the victim leader board.

The second insight is a personal one and comes from reflecting on the fruits of 1960s and 1970s feminism which drove women from the traditional home and into what most women still strangely do not recognise as wage slavery.  The dramatic move by women into the workforce has achieved many things – increased family stress, increased family costs, increasing traffic congestion in peak hour in the cities, giving grandparents unwanted second careers and causing many of them to move house (!), the ratcheting up of the cost of housing such that now a whole generation is excluded from the property ladder, jobless men, a false sense of female achievement, the birth of a new career (child-carer), the smearing of stay-at-home mothers and their appalling treatment by policymakers, searing political correctness in the workplace (enforced by people who do jobs that I will describe below under the fourth insight).

So not entirely a cost-free social revolution.

Of all people, presidential aspirant Elizabeth Warren once wrote a book called The Two Income Trap (in 2004, with her daughter).  The data-driven book argued that having two incomes, far from guaranteeing household financial security – let alone wellbeing – very nearly guaranteed the loss of financial security.  Yet every family believes that, in order to survive economically, they must be two-income.  This lie has been a huge and disastrous turning point in our culture.  As Tucker Carlson says, unencumbered by family, women can now become “obedient servants to global capitalism”.  Yep, business hates the family.  And yet that anmity is rarely discussed.

The third insight came from a social media friend who has credibly described Australia’s utter reliance for economic growth on mass immigration, a situation he described as a “Ponzi scheme”. 

According to one definition:

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The Ponzi scheme generates returns for early investors by acquiring new investors. This is similar to a pyramid scheme in that both are based on using new investors’ funds to pay the earlier backers.

And so it goes with mass immigration, including the floods of student-visa holders transitioning to permanent residence as well as visa overstayers by the bucketload and “normal” migrants.  The essence of the scam is that more people arriving and driving demand for goods and services (especially construction) is the only thing now sustaining demand.  And the increased population of instant taxpayers (for those who get jobs or who pay student fees) provides governments with the means to fund their ever-growing and increasingly zany spending schemes. But, like any Ponzi scam, it cannot go on forever.  It bespeaks second best economic planning, a recourse to cruise control national development strategy to paper over aenemic per capita growth.

The Sydney academic Salvatore Babones has recently argued similarly.

The fourth insight comes from a book published in 2018 and which is prominently located on the shelves of our few remaining bookshops. In 2013 an academic anthropologist from the London School of Economics, David Graeber, published an article on “bullshit jobs”.  These are the jobs that can variously be defined as jobs the world would be better off without, jobs that are not really needed, and jobs that the holders themselves firmly believe don’t contribute anything either to their own organisation or to the economy as a whole.  Jobs that may be thought of as pointless or pernicious. The article, not surprisingly, had wide appeal to the many of us who have either done bullshit jobs, observed nearby colleagues so occupied, or who are simply gobsmacked by a 21st century workforce crawling with useless jobs.

After Graeber published the article, he received a mass of feedback and myriad new examples of bullshit jobs.  His book of the same name followed his earlier marvellous work titled Debt: the First 5000 Years.

Some bullshit jobs are blindingly obvious – my own list would include human resources employees and consultants, university administrators, vice-chancellors, lobbyists, hotel security folks who do absolutely nothing at most pubs which remain eminently peaceful, much of corporate middle management, diversity officers, diversity consultants, local council community development employees, academics who write unsuccessful grant applications, public relations people, most marketing people, Cricket Australia’s high performance unit, and so on.  I have come across an organisation in New Zealand which has a Chief Excitement Officer.  (Admittedly, this might just be a silly name for what is a real job).

The American economist and career Democrat Robert Reich has talked about an entire category of high end workers called “symbolic analysts” to have emerged in what the sociologist Daniel Bell was first to term “the post-industrial society”.  Richard Florida, always the derivative thinker, called these people the “creative class”.  All of us recognise the massive emergence of the service economy, in which we pay other people to raise our children, do our washing, etc.

Graeber divides bullshit jobs into a number of categories – flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box tickers and taskmasters.

Flunkies are people whose job it is to make other people look good and feel important, like receptionists and doormen.  Graeber says:

We all know what kind of jobs they are, but an obvious example would be, say, a receptionist at a place that doesn’t actually need a receptionist. Some places obviously do need receptionists, who are busy all the time. Some places the phone rings maybe once a day. But you still have to have someone — sometimes two people — sitting there, looking important. So, I don’t have to call somebody on the phone, I’ll have someone who will just say, “There is a very important broker who wants to speak to you.” That’s a flunky.

Goons are people who have an element of aggression in their roles, like lobbyists, soldiers and telemarketers.  As Graeber notes:

They’re basically people there to annoy you, to push you around in some way. And insofar as it is necessary, it’s only necessary because other people have them. You don’t need a corporate lawyer if your competitor doesn’t have a corporate lawyer. You don’t need a telemarketer at all, but insofar as you can make up an excuse to say you need them, it’s because the other guy’s got one.

Duct-tapers are people who have to clean up other people’s messes – like political minders or rubbish collectors in parks that have hosted climate-change demonstrations.  Solving problems that shouldn’t exist. 

Box tickers are those whose job is to show that other work is being done.  Task masters simply create work for others to do.  See under middle management.  See also under the writers of the “strategic mission statement”, or who overuse the words “quality, excellence, leadership or stakeholders”. Notes Graeber:

This happens increasingly across the world, but in America someone did some statistical study and discovered that I think something like 39 percent of the average time an office worker is supposed to be working, they’re actually working at their job. Increasingly, it’s administrative emails, pointless meetings, all sorts of form filling-out, and paperwork, basically.

We have all been there.

The existence of bullshit jobs cannot be put down solely to ever expanding, inefficient, hyper-regulating government, tempting though this is.  Alas, the modern corporatised private company is just as much to blame, despite capitalism’s oft repeated claims to efficiency. 

Graeber contends that bullshit jobs are also dramatically rising, not just increasingly visible as a result of his own research.  There is, indeed, a veritable “plague of pointless work”. (Full disclosure: I have done bullshit jobs – one for 12 years, no less.  I used to spend much of my time writing ministerial letters to constituents and interest groups for political masters who pretended to be interested in economic development and rural decline, and in almost every case had not read either the letters they received nor the responses I drafted).

Perhaps there might be a concentration of bullshit jobs among the Anywheres.  This could be a fruitful subject for research: is there an overlap between anywhere and bullshit jobs, and what is its extent?  Dare one also suggest that many of the bullshit jobs we have had inflicted upon us are done by globalistas?  This too suggests a geography of bullshit jobs, and a linking of bullshit jobs to larger organisations.  There is also a concentration of bullshit jobs in the “services sector”, that catch-all category of labour which now takes up around seven-tenths of the economy and the place where, Graeber argues, the useless paper pushers have emerged.  Graeber is especially harsh on the so-called “FIRE” sector – finance, insurance and real estate.

There are few bullshit jobs on-farm, in small business, among startups, in rural towns.  Those places from which real jobs have disappeared.  Now you leave small places and go to cities, to be over-educated and unleashed upon the world of bullshit jobs.

What do these insights, taken together, tell us about the modern economy and our social pathologies and divides?

Well, first, the non-bullshit jobs – involving people “making things” – were shipped offshore from the 1980s and especially the 1990s, and this accelerated dramatically after China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation in December 2001.  (The strategic importance of the latter has been documented by the trader/author Stewart Patterson).

Offshoring and outsourcing of jobs to consultants shrank companies, as did mergers and acquisitions — just about the only way now that large companies actually grow.  They also caused joblessness in Western countries without any demonstrable productivity gains.  The increase in bullshit jobs and the disappearance of non-bullshit jobs need not be causally related in order to make the point that there has been a massive decline in (especially male) self-esteem caused by each of the phenomena described.

Second, the feminisation of the workforce may have caused a decline in male, breadwinning jobs.  This is difficult to establish one way or the other.  We know, though, that at least a whole chunk of bullshit jobs are either done by women or are the result of women having entered the work force.  Of course, other things, like societal paranoia over child sex abuse, have led to the virtual forced removal of male workers from teaching and cognate professions.

Third, there are serious macroeconomic consequences from all this.  The flatlining economy, flailing productivity, the growth of useless, non-performing jobs, the runaway immigration that only adds to both the welfare bill and social discontent, the massive add-on cost for households of running the two income family, the hideous congestion of cities all feeds into declines in well-being that are real, not imagined.  A Ponzi economy, indeed.  A bullshit economy, you might say.  None of these things is acknowledged by our political class, the Anywheres of the parliament and their comfortable Canberra bubble-dwelling Deep State colleagues.

Fourth, I haven’t even discussed yet another element of the jobless crisis, and it is important.  It is the increasing numbers of expensively trained people doing jobs for which they were not trained and which would not be their first (or even fifth) choice of occupation.  This is the PhD driving a cab or Uber for a living.  Ever greater numbers of university graduates cannot get jobs, or at least not one that their pricey education trained them for.  This cannot be but a societal disaster, one which no end of comforting talk of a funky “gig economy” of endless, exciting pivots to new occupations, albeit with no protections and no perks (like paid holidays) can airbrush from the conversation.

Fifth, the dignity of work matters in a million ways, and there is much that has occurred over the last half a century that has stripped out dignity from work.  Many of the things that have occurred, with such awful consequences for men, for families, and for communities, occurred as the result of the free choices of rational actor human beings, and yet have yielded overwhelmingly rotten fruit. This is a point raised by speaker after speaker at the National Conservatism conference, and it has merit.  Outsourcing social policy making and politics to economists has considerable downside.

So, welcome to a world of bullshit jobs, disappearing real jobs, jobs unaligned with training, jobless men without dignity, opioid relief for our ennui, a Ponzi economy, and two-income families who have basically offshored the bringing up of their children without any guaranteed improvement in their material circumstances.  Do our political leaders talk about this?  Nope.  Do sufficient of them even understand it?  Who knows?  Do they get that the old left-right political categories are now irrelevant?  I don’t see it.

One final point: I read recently that VicPol’s Operation Tethering, which went for over three long years, employed twenty detectives full time to “get Pell”.  Now there are some bullshit jobs right there.

(I should declare an interest, belonging as I apparently do, at least according to Andrew Clark of that curiously anti-business business publication, the  Australian Financial Review, to a “hard right” subset of the Somewheres.  Clark states: “It is the authoritarian, hard-right subsection of the “somewheres” where parties like One Nation, the Australian Conservatives and the Katter Australia Party reside”.  Ouch). 

7 comments
  • rod.stuart

    ” Ever greater numbers of university graduates cannot get jobs, or at least not one that their pricey education trained them for. ”
    a) At some stage, I think perhaps the 1950’s, it became fashionable to think of the Universities as “job training” rather than the traditional model in which they were institutions for those who yearned for higher learning.
    b) Perhaps it is because STEM careers such as Engineering, Architecture, Medicine, and Dentistry were to become disciplines studied at University that the notion that anyone and everyone, irregardless of academic standing or indeed inclination, had not only a “right’, but some sort of obligation to go to University.
    I believe the result of these things, inter alia, is an abundance of professionals who are in the wrong field and are therefore sub standard, and a lack of individuals with the skills and desire required for excellent craftsmanship.
    Both of these IMHO are in turn the result of government’s entry into the education business. The apprenticeship programmes of an earlier age produced the finest tradesmen, and at the same time men loyal to a particular employer who take pride in their travails. At the same time, there is no particular reason that many of the aforementioned STEM disciplines need to be part of a University curriculum. I am suggesting that an ideal approach to producing these professionals would be technical schools conducted by industry, with University curricula fashioned for those who had attained certification in their discipline, but interested in further study following some experience.
    In any event, it is difficult to accept that such nonsense as “gender studies” can be described as ‘job training’, even though there may be a place for them for those who can afford the time and money.

  • Adelagado

    When Henry Ford was one of the richest people in the world he directly employed 150,000 people, plus countless more in the supply chain. And most of those jobs would have been ‘jobs for life’. Nowadays the worlds ‘overnight’ gazzilionaires employ far fewer people (e.g. Facebook, 40,000) and most of those would be on relatively short contracts. We are facing the biggest employment upheaval since the industrial revolution. More people fighting for fewer jobs, and and a massive concentration of wealth in fewer hands. Maybe, forcing bullshit jobs on to the likes of Mr Zuckerburg will be the only way to separate them from their money in the future. But that won’t really solve the problem. The future of employment lies in small business and self employment. ‘Big business’ is a thing of the past. Canberra needs to recognise this and start massively cutting red tape, paperwork, and taxes on small business. (For example, small business should be paid to export, not taxed if they export!)

  • Stephen Due

    The reason many women in the workforce have jobs they “do not recognise as wage slavery” is that these are not real jobs. They are women’s-club jobs in which the main objective is social interaction, networking and CV polishing. The public service is full of these people. They are useless. However, because there is no real work for them to do, that does not matter. The only two families with a breadwinner in my immediate neighbourhood are in this category. The wife has a non-job with a government department that only requires her to be at the workplace during office hours (no actual activity other than virtue-signalling and having coffees is necessary). The husband stays at home and potters about. In this suburb there a few families supported by men working in building trades, and many people on a pension of some sort. The main occupation of the latter is planning travel or traveling, which is what gives their lives meaning. The only noticeable activity at 8:30 am is some tradies heading off to work and children being taken to school. The rush hour is when the SUVs turn up to collect the children after school at 3:30. The whole population is driving huge, brand new gas-guzzling cars, and getting their houses enlarged to twice their original size. Very few, as far as one can see, are doing anything useful. As to where the money comes from – who knows?

  • Alice Thermopolis

    An illuminating post. thank you.
    T’was ever thus:
    Parkinson’s Law II: “BS work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, especially in the false-fact media space, ceteris paribus.

  • rod.stuart

    Sunday morning and this article by “solutions are Obvious” on higher learning in the USA provides some insite into this very topic. It might be of interest.
    https://www.theburningplatform.com/2019/11/09/the-us-higher-education-system-is-broken/

  • DENNIS BOOTHBY

    Great article. I would only add that most bureaucracies will eventually turn ‘Bolshevik’. Even those in private enterprise [i.e. the wealth GENERATING section of society] will do so. Government bureaucracies [i.e. the wealth CONSUMING section] turn Bolshevik very quickly and hence are ‘captured’ in a Gramscian sense very early in their existence. Bureaucracies seldom/never produce wealth, they merely administer/redistribute it.

  • marcuslestrange

    A great article but Paul should continue on and agitate more for the REAL unemployment figures be published. After all the economics editor of The Australian summed it up well two years ago.

    In May 2017, Adam Creighton wrote in The Australian (“Be honest about unemployment”) that, when the under-employed (those who can’t find enough work) and those only marginally attached to the workforce are added to the unemployed, it comes to 23 per cent of working-age Australians (3.37 million). Those 3.37 million were competing for only 170,000 advertised jobs that month.

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