Liveblogging World War II: August 22, 1943
Menzie Chinn: Asymmetries in Aggregate Supply in Two Frameworks: Noted for August 22, 2013

Ryan Avent:: Labour markets: On "bullshit jobs": Noted for August 22, 2013

Ryan Avent: Labour markets: On "bullshit jobs":

Productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away…. But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours…. we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector…. Why in the world would firms spend extraordinary amounts of money employing people to do worthless tasks (especially when they've shown themselves to be exceedingly good at not employing people to do worthless tasks)? Says Mr Graeber: "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger…."

I am immediately bursting with questions. Such as, should we conclude that protesters… are in fact too happy? How does the ruling class co-ordinate all this hiring, and if much of the economy's employment is useless in the first place why not just keep them on during recessions?

But there is… an important point…. The industrial jobs that have been automated away were incredibly tedious and unpleasant… assembly line processes contributed to rising worker wages in part because of increased productivity… but also because employers were tired of training workers only to lose them once they realised they'd be affixing Tab A to Frame B, repeatedly, all day long. Employers had to retain such workers--had to pay them a wage sufficient to keep them on the job despite its dreadful tedium--because the machines of the era lacked the manual dexterity to complete the required tasks, and so a line of human machines was the only way to make the highly productive assembly-line system work…. As technology has improved, it has become ever easier to dispense with human labour in mechanical processes. There are still jobs where a very high level of physical dexterity and task flexibility is needed--in construction, for example, or janitorial work--and people continue to do those jobs. But it is not surprising that employment growth has shifted elsewhere. And administrative jobs are the modern equivalent of the industrial line worker.

Over the past century the world economy has grown increasingly complex…. This complexity is what makes us rich. But it is an enormous pain to manage…. And so you end up with the clerical equivalent of repeatedly affixing Tab A to Frame B: shuffling papers, management of the minutiae of supply chains, and so on. Disaggregation may make it look meaningless…. But the idea is the same. One question is why today's workers aren't rewarded with high wages for their suffering. And one possible answer is that, well, they are. Real wages for today's clerical workers are far higher than they were for manufacturing workers a century ago, and the work, for all its tedium, probably isn't nearly as unpleasant….

Technology continues to improve, however…. Jobs from truck driver to legal aid to medical diagnostician to customer service technician will soon be threatened by machines… most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo…. The issue is not that jobs used to have meaning and now they don't; most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else. The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives…. We can't be certain that the robots are coming for all our jobs. Disemployment in administrative jobs could create new, and perhaps highly remunerative, work in sectors or occupations we can't yet anticipate…. Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining.