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AI & Meaningless Work
Automation could be an opportunity to focus on more meaningful work. It could also lead to more "bullshit jobs". Which one is it?
“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless.”
David Graber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant (2013)
AI will have an impact on the job market over the coming years but how powerful the impact will be is up for debate. Here are some qualified, rough estimates:
OECD estimated in Employment Outlook 2023 that 27% of jobs are in occupations at high risk of automation.
World Economic Forum estimated in Future of Jobs Report 2023 a structural labor market churn of 23% of jobs in the next five years.
McKinsey estimates in The economic potential of generative AI that 50% of global work activities could be automated between 2030 and 2060.
Goldman Sachs estimated in The Potentially Large Effects of Artificial Intelligence on Economic Growth that generative AI could substitute up to one-fourth of current work.
Regardless of how many jobs this new wave of automation will claim, there is in my opinion an even more important question to ask. AI could be a huge opportunity to automate a lot of tedious work. The flip side is: Are employers intelligent and creative enough to distribute these newly found resources into more meaningful, stimulating, energizing, useful work? Or will more employees be forced into “lazy girl jobs”?
The deceased anthropologist David Graeber wrote a painstaking examination of meaningless work in his 2018 book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”.
One of the book’s most important sources is a poll by YouGov in the UK which found that only 50% of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world. 37% of the respondents were quite sure that their work did not make any meaningful contribution to the world while 13% were uncertain. A later poll in Holland came up with almost the exact same result, except that 40% of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist.
If we take these polls at face value and extrapolate the numbers, they indicate that up to 50% of all jobs could be eliminated without any substantial impact. Depressing thought. For all of the struggles in the world – with mental illnesses, climate changes, poverty, AI dangers, etc., etc. –so much human talent is occupied with work they perceive as utterly meaningless.
Graeber defines a bullshit job as:
“a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”
There are two vital points here to take note of:
Point 1: Whether a job is “bullshit” or not is self-reported, not based on objective, observable facts. For example, a hitman in the mob or a ruthless king may cause a lot of damage to society, but as long as they are not personally convinced that their jobs are meaningless, their jobs are not “bullshit” according to Graeber's terminology.
Point 2: Some jobs are demeaning and underappreciated at times but may nonetheless serve a useful purpose. Graeber defines these as “shit jobs”:
“Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly (..) Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers—as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie—as, indeed, it is.”
Throughout the book, Graeber refers to the latter category of jobs as "spiritual violence" and "a scar across our collective soul".
Some of my readers may dismiss this as an over-exaggeration or as childish complaints from a younger generation that is too entitled and fragile. But anyone who has endured working on a meaningless task from dawn to dusk knows that it is comparable to Chinese water torture.
The Torment of a Meaningless Role
The worst part is that the professional in a meaningless role has to suffer in silence. If they express how they really feel to a supervisor or a co-worker they run the risk of seeing a letter of termination shortly after. Even to friends, family, and relatives, they’ll be exposed as an imposter if they talk openly about how little they use their skills at work.
Furthermore, there is not any common framework to cling onto with guidelines on the correct course of action or on how to process the complex bag of feelings that arise from working a meaningless job. In part, the workers are feeling guilty and embarrassed for being paid to not deploy any of their skills, and in part, obviously, they are going through a lot of boredom, confusion, and frustration. On top of that, they may be completely dependent on their salary and have to deal with a tyrannical, micro-managing boss who will fire them if they go into an outburst or emotional breakdown. The circumstances amount to a weird catch-22 situation that the workers cannot escape from and not bear to stay in either.
The primary goal of AI should be to eliminate such unbearable work. The worst-case scenario is that AI will proliferate meaningless work and professionals will end up having to do less of the work they enjoy doing. In the best-case scenario, AI will free up time and resources, so more people can pursue worthwhile endeavors. No matter what, AI will have a significant impact on jobs, and hopefully, it will enables us to focus on work that truly matters.