Working long and hard
David Graeber’s bullshit jobs thesis is plain wrong. Capitalist social relations are driving up hours and ruining people’s health, writes Michael Roberts
In a previous article, I looked at the impact of working from home and remote work, which has mushroomed since the Covid pandemic.1
In this one, I want to consider the impact of work on people’s lives and health and how that will pan out over the next few decades. Marx once said:
The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc, the more you save - the greater becomes your treasure, which neither moths nor rust will devour - your capital. The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have: ie, the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being.2
I take this to mean that, while human (both mental and manual) labour has its satisfactions, work for most people for most of the time, is really toil. People do not live to work (although sometimes people say they do) but work to live. They have little time to develop interests and their imaginative potential.
Much is made of how annual working hours have declined over the last century. The working week has steadily fallen, the argument goes - things are getting better. No more children working in mines and factories; two or three days a week not working; etc.
But this hides much of the reality. First, it is not true that children are not being put to work in the fields, mines and factories of the global south in large numbers; or that ‘slave labour’ is not operating as servants for the rich in their homes or in migrant-dominated jobs. Second, while total hours may have declined on official figures, there are sizeable sections of the workforce still enduring long hours and intensive work. Around 500 million people in the world are working at least 55 hours per week, according to the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation.
In recent years, the trend toward shorter working hours has halted, and in some cases, reversed. A 2018 ILO report found that there had been a bifurcation of working hours, “with substantial portions of the global workforce working either excessively long hours (more than 48 hours per week), which particularly affects men, or short hours/part-time work (less than 35 hours per week), which predominantly impacts women”.3
The link between overwork and underwork, or unemployment, is not new. As Karl Marx describes it, “the overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to overwork and subjects them to the dictates of capital.”4
Jon Messenger, the author of the ILO report, points out that there has been
a diversification of working time arrangements, with a movement away from the standard workweek consisting of fixed working hours each day for a fixed number of days and towards various forms of ‘flexible’ working time arrangements (eg, new forms of shift work, hours averaging, flexi-time arrangements, compressed workweeks, on-call work).5
With these arrangements comes the expectation that one will always be on call - ‘rise and grind 24/7’.
What is striking about this trend is that it is happening to everyone. Studies have found work intensification among managers, nurses, aerospace workers, meat processing workers, schoolteachers, IT staff and carers. There is also evidence of work intensification in Europe and the US. “It’s not just the Amazon production line person who’s had their work intensified: it’s the London commuter and the new solicitor,” says Francis Green, a professor at University College London who has studied the phenomenon for years. According to an analysis by the UK’s Resolution Foundation think-tank, just over two-thirds of employees in the top quarter of the pay ladder in the UK said they worked “under a great deal of tension”. The same was true for half of those in the bottom quarter for pay, and this latter group has experienced the biggest increase in tension since the 1990s.
In the 1990s, people said their ‘own discretion’ was the most important factor in how hard they worked. Now they are more likely to cite ‘clients or customers’. In a world of instant communication, many workers now feel they have to respond quickly to consumer or client demands. That goes for the banker working on a big merger, as well as the Uber Eats driver he summons to bring him a burger.
Another possible explanation is that employers have simply cut headcounts to save costs without coming up with more efficient ways of doing things. This will no doubt resonate with public-sector workers everywhere, who have experienced a decade or more of government spending cuts.
Some companies have also harnessed technology to extract more effort from staff. More workplaces like warehouses have become partially automated, which means workers must keep pace with machines. Other workers are now easier to monitor. Witness the growth of software which tracks employees’ keystrokes, measures their breaks and sends nudges if they stray on to non-work-related sites. ‘Taylorism’, as it used to be called, is still alive and well.6
A fourth possibility is that email and instant messaging platforms simply tire people out mentally. It is hard to focus when constantly interrupted, which might leave workers feeling as if they are working hard and fast even if they are not.
Jamie McCallum in his excellent book Worked over: how round-the-clock work is killing the American dream (Basic Books, 2020) points out that actually the hours of all wage and salary workers in the US have increased by 13% since 1975, which is about five extra workweeks per year. And it is the hours of low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women, that have increased the most. And this in the period of stagnating wages, rising hours, and declining union density. More intensified work has gone along with rising income inequality.
If wages are stagnant, then the main way that working class and even middle class people for the most part get more money is by working longer hours. An Economic Policy Institute report has highlighted trends in annual work hours among American prime-age workers between 1979 and 2016.7 As wage inequality has grown over the last four decades, the report notes, we observe two very different responses, when it comes to work hours. On the one hand, workers are working many more hours a year, perhaps in part to compensate for tepid, and in some instances declining, hourly wage growth. On the other hand, a growing number of workers have become disconnected from the labour force, by not working at all over the course of an entire year. Work hours have typically grown most among the lowest earners and those working the fewest hours.
Long working hours are killing more than 700,000 people per year. According to the WHO and the ILO, long hours resulted in 745,194 deaths in 2017 - up from roughly 590,000 in 2000. Those working these hours have an estimated 35% higher risk of strokes and 17% higher risk of heart disease, compared to people working 35-40-hour weeks. Men and middle-aged adults are particularly exposed and the problem is most prevalent in south-east Asia. So, while working harder does not seem to be making us richer, it does appear to be making us sicker.
A new study by academics Tom Hunt and Harry Pickard suggests that “working with high intensity” increases the likelihood of people reporting stress, depression and burnout.8 They are also more likely to work when sick. Data from the UK Health and Safety Executive shows that the proportion of people suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety was rising even before the pandemic hit. Indeed, Marxist health economist José Tapia Granados found counter-intuitively that it was in periods of economic boom and full employment that mortality rates rose because of the stress from work, while it fell in recessions, as people may become unemployed, but suffered less stress from not working.9
This raises the question of productivity. Work intensification is coinciding not with rising productivity, as employers expect, but slowing productivity growth. Taylorism may still be alive in exploiting the labour force, but it does not deliver for capital. Why is that? One argument was presented by the late anthropologist and radical, David Graeber, who argued that people were being asked to take on “bullshit jobs”.10 The theory is that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value. So they do not work well.
However, that theory has been contested by Magdalena Soffia, Alex Wood and Brendan Burchell, who state that the proportion of employees describing their jobs as useless is low and declining, and bears little relationship to Graeber’s predictions. Much more relevant is Marx’s own concept of alienation. He argued that labour under capitalism is inherently alienating, as it blocks individuals’ essential need for self-realisation. However, for Marx this was not the result of individuals being engaged in activity that was of no social value, but rather because capitalist social relations frustrated the free development of human abilities in spontaneous activity. The authors state:
Unlike the BS jobs theory, alienation is not premised on the view that the work being undertaken is inherently pointless and of no value. Instead, it highlights the importance of the social relations under which work is undertaken and the degree to which they constrain the ability of workers to affirm their sense of self through the development and recognition of skills and abilities.11
So the social solution to work stress and exploitation is not to stop people doing “bullshit jobs” and instead give them benefits not to work. The answer is to overturn those social relations in which people’s work is devalued by toxic workplace cultures that leave workers feeling their labour is pointless. The phenomenon of meaningless work illuminates the contradiction at the heart of capitalism itself.
Long hours at tedious jobs can be avoided if workers had greater control over their employment, conditions and schedules. Cooperative work could replace authoritarian dominance, Taylor-style, by bosses. Machines can be used to increase opportunities to reduce working time and develop innovations, and not designed to dictate hours and intensity of work. It is capitalist social relations in the workplace that destroy innovation, cooperation and people’s health, not the jobs as such themselves. The future of creative work rather than destructive toil depends on ending capitalist operations in the workplace: ie, workers’ control.
Michael Roberts blogs at thenextrecession.wordpress.com
K Marx Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/needs.htm.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 5, section 3: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm.↩︎
Taylorism is the so-called science of dividing specific tasks to allow employees to complete assignments as efficiently as possible. The practice was first developed by Frederick Taylor, who claimed that it would lead to the most efficient practices in the workforce.↩︎
T Hunt, H Pickard Harder, better, faster, stronger? Work intensity and ‘good work’ in the United Kingdom Wiley Online Library 2022.↩︎
JA Tapia Granados Population health and the economy: mortality and the great recession in Europe John Wiley and Sons, 2017.↩︎
D Graeber Bullshit jobs London 2019.↩︎