Do you always have work to do at your place of employment, or is your work of a kind where sometimes you are busy, while at other times there’s not much to do? If you are one of those employees working where activity goes through peaks and troughs, chances are you have encountered an attitude that is usually accepted as normal but which would have been regarded as quite bizarre by most of our ancestors.

The best way to explain what I mean is to quote from an employee who has experienced this weird attitude. David Graeber has several such interviews in his book, ‘Bullsht Jobs: A Theory’. Here’s a typical example from ‘Patrick’ who worked in a convenience store:

“Being on shift on a Sunday afternoon…was just appalling. They had this thing about us not being able to just do nothing, even if the shop was empty. So we couldn’t just sit at the till and read a magazine. Instead, the manager made up utterly meaningless work for us to do, like going round the whole shop and checking that things were in date (even though we knew for a fact they were because of the turnover rate) or rearranging products on shelves in even more pristine order than they already were”.

What I am referring to, then, is that attitude employers have that regards slack time as something that should be filled with pointless tasks or ‘make-work’.

How else might these slow periods be dealt with? I can think of a few alternative options. The business could send unneeded staff home without pay. They could send them home with pay. They could require them to stay at their posts, but let the staff socialise, play games or pursue their own interests until there are real work-based duties to carry out.

Of all these options, sending staff home with pay is the least popular. It hardly ever happens. Letting employees do their own thing during slow periods is also pretty unusual. Sending staff home, forfeiting remaining wages is more widely practiced, especially with zero-hours contracts that specify no set hours. But if you are in a regular job and there are times when the work is slow, the most common solution is to have that time filled with useless tasks.

It’s hard to see how this practice of making up pointless tasks is in any way productive. Indeed, a case could be made that it encourages anti-productivity. David Graeber recalled an incident when he worked as a cleaner in a kitchen and he and the rest of the cleaning staff pulled together to get everything done as well and quickly as possible. With their work completed, they all relaxed…until the boss turned up.

“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now, you are on my time! You can goof around on your own time! Get back to work!”

He then had them occupy their time scrubbing baseboards that were already in pristine condition. From then on, the cleaning staff took their time carrying out their duties.

Graeber’s boss’s outburst provides insights into why this attitude exists and why it would have seemed so peculiar to our ancestors. He said, “you are on my time”. In other words, he did not consider his staff’s time to be their own. No, he had purchased their time, which made it his, and so to see them doing anything but look busy felt almost like robbery.

How Our Ancestors Worked

But our ancestors could not possibly have conceived of time as something distinct from work and available to be purchased, and they certainly would have seen no reason to fill down time with make-work. You can tell this is so by noting how make-work is absent from the rest of the animal kingdom. You have animals that live short, frenetic lives, constantly busy at the task of survival. Think of the industrious ant or the hummingbird, forever moving in the search for nectar. You have animals that are sometimes active but at other times take life easy, such as lions who mostly sleep and only occasionally hunt. But what you never see are animals being instructed to do pointless tasks.

There’s every reason to believe our ancestors would have been under no such instructions, either, particularly when you know a bit about the kind of societies they lived in and the practicalities they faced. Our earliest ancestors lived in bands or tribes in which there were no upper or lower classes, for the simple reason that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle would not permit much social stratification.

This should not be taken to mean that there was absolute equality among members of bands or tribes, however. Leaders did emerge, distinguishing themselves from the rest of the band or tribe through qualities like personality or strength. Both bands and tribes had big-men, recognised in some ways as the leader. But such leaders would have been barely distinguishable from ordinary tribe members. At best, the big-man could only sway communal decisions and had no independent decision-making authority to wield or knew any diplomatic secrets that could confer individual advantage. Moreover, the big-man’s lifestyle was indistinguishable from everyone else’s. As Jared Diamond put it, “he lives in the same type of hut, has the same clothes and ornaments, or is as naked, as everyone else”.

Given that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it would have made no sense for ‘big-men’ to make anyone fill spare time with make-work. No, the sensible would have been to permit relaxation during slack periods in order for there to be plenty of energy when the time came to put it to good use. You can imagine how there would have been seasons in which there was plenty of fruit to gather, or moments when everyone should mobilise to bring home game. But afterwards, when the fruit was picked and the hog roasting on the spit, the time left was better spent playing, socialising, or resting.

This is, in fact, how we evolved to work. We are designed for occasional bursts of intense energy, which is then followed by relaxation as we slowly build up for the next short period of high activity.

This work pattern could hardly have changed much when human societies transitioned to farming and were able to develop into chieftains and larger hierarchical societies. After all, farming is also very seasonal work, so here too it would have made much more sense to adopt work attitudes that encouraged intense activity when necessary (such as when the harvest was ready to be gathered) but at other times to just leave the peasants alone to potter about minding and maintaining things or relaxing.

Now, it’s true that the evolution of human societies into hierarchical structures not only entailed the emergence of a ruling ‘upper class’ but also a lower caste of slaves and serfs. But, although we commonly conceive of such lower caste people as being worked to death by brutal task-masters, in actual fact early upper classes were nowhere near as obsessed with time-management as is the modern boss and didn’t care what people were up to so long as the necessary work was accomplished. As Graeber explained, “the typical medieval serf, male or female, probably worked from dawn to dusk for twenty to thirty days out of any year, but just a few hours a day otherwise, and on feast days, not at all. And feast days were not infrequent”.

So, our ancestors saw no need to fill idle time with make-work, partly because it was (and still is) of little practical use. But if masters of serfs could plainly see how silly it is to force make-work on their serfs, why can’t modern managers grasp the same thing with regards to their staff? Well, it all has to do with concepts of time, and that’s something we’ll look into next time…


Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond


If you could go back in time and say to somebody, “can I borrow you for a few minutes?”, your request would have been met with a baffled look. This would be because such a person would have no understanding of time as being broken up into hours, minutes and seconds. Instead, what understanding of time there was consisted of passing seasons, cycles like day and night or the length of time actions took, on average to perform. “I will be there in five minutes” means nothing to a rural person in Madagascar, but saying it takes two cookings of a pot of rice would have let somebody know how long your journey would likely take. As Graeber explained, for societies without clocks, “time is not a grid against which work can be measured, because the work is the measure itself”.

It’s because our ancestors had no ‘clock’ concept of time that they could not therefore conceive of somebody’s labour-power as being distinct from the labourer himself. Consequently, if somebody came across, say, a cooper, they could imagine offering to buy the barrels he made, or they could imagine buying the cooper himself. But the notion of buying something as abstract as time? How was that possible?

Well, once slavery came about our ancestors did have an approximation to modern employment practices, in that slaves could be rented instead of bought outright. Whenever we find examples of wage labour in ancient times, it pretty much always involves people who were slaves already, hired out to do some other masters’ work for a while.

Around the 19th century we do see occasional warnings by plantation owners that slaves had best be kept busy during idle periods, for who knows what they might plot if left with time on their hands? But it took technological innovations from the 14th century onward to really make time seem like a commodity that could be bought, spent, misspent or stolen.

Clocks and buying time

What set us on the road to bosses complaining about ‘their time’ being wasted was similar to what lead to the evolution of money. Our ancestors lived in gift-based economies in which favours were freely undertaken with the vague understanding that they would be suitably reciprocated at a later date. But when was a favour suitably reciprocated or a slight adequately compensated? Such questions lead to rules, regulations, laws and contracts that gradually quantified obligations and transformed them into debts and credits that could be precisely calculated.

By the 14th century, clocks had been invented and began to show up in town squares. But where the clock-based concept of time really took off was in the factories of the industrial revolution. The increasing routinisation and micro-tasking of work that typified the production-line brought about the quantisation of time into discrete chunks that could be bought, and the need to coordinate logistics lead standardised times (imagine running trains when no two towns agree on when it is 2PM). By dividing time into the now-familiar hours, minutes and seconds, we created a concept of time that conceives it as a definite quantity that could be purchased, distinct from both the labourer and his produce. It became possible to conceive of buying a portion of his time and owning whatever produce that got created during that time, while not actually owning the labourer himself. This, of course, is what distinguishes an employee from a slave.

But once we began thinking about time as discrete units that could be bought, that then lead to a belief that time could be wastefully spent, not just by being literally idle but by spending ‘somebody else’s’ time doing your own thing, like playing a board-game or reading a magazine. The attitude I referred to earlier (‘don’t let slaves be idle lest they plot to free themselves’) was carried over to working practices in industrial cities. This, combined with the idea that you could buy somebody’s time but they could then waste ‘your’ time (misspend it) lead to the peculiar modern notion of time discipline and its obsession with busyness and make-work. Once you get to the 18th century and onwards, you get the emergence of bosses and upper classes who increasingly view the old episodic style of working (which involved occasional bursts of intense energy, which is then followed by relaxation as we slowly build up for the next short period of high activity) as problematic rather than sensible. Moralists came to see poverty as being due to bad time-management. If you were poor it was because your time was being spent recklessly or wastefully. What better remedy than to have your misspent time purchased by somebody who was rich and, therefore, better able to budget time carefully, as one who is frugal would budget and dispose of money?

It was not only the bosses who came to see time as purchasable units that might be misspent. So, too, did employees, especially since the old struggle between the conflicting interests of employer and employee meant the latter also had to adopt the clock-concept of time. If you are an employee, you want an hourly wage for an hours’ work. But if you are the boss, it would be preferable to somehow extract more than an hours’ work for an hour’s pay. Early factories did not allow workers to bring in their own timepieces, which meant those employees only had the owner’s clock to go on. Such owners regularly fiddled with the clock so as to appropriate more value (by getting them to do overtime for free) from their employees. This lead to arguments over hourly rates, free time, fixed-hour contracts and all that. But, as David Graeber pointed out, “the very act of demanding ‘free time’…had the effect of subtly reinforcing this idea that when the worker was ‘on the clock’ his time truly did belong to the person who had bought it”.

So, the belief that any spare time in work should be filled with pointless tasks came about as a result of somebody’s time becoming conceived of as distinct units that somebody else could buy and, consequently, as something that could be stolen or misspent. This in turn lead to a form of moralising that regarded idleness as sin, as something to be eradicated through the provision of make-work and indignation upon seeing employees doing anything other than their jobs or pretending to carry out tasks when their actual job is done.

It’s not just in stores, offices and factories that this attitude prevails. Where care work is concerned, the service being offered can sometimes consist of being on stand-by just in case the elderly client needs attention. But the elderly person gets so indignant about the carer ‘sitting around wasting my money’ they, too, end up being asked to pretend to do ‘something useful’ like tidy up a home they have already tidied. From the perspective of the stand-by carer, this can make the work intolerably frustrating.

The future of make-work

Make-work also has worrying implications if future technological capabilities will be as potent as futurists like Ray Kurzweil claim. I would argue that each major work revolution has focused on successfully less urgent demands. The agricultural revolution was concerned with food production, which is of obvious importance since we cannot live without food nor do any other work without adequate nutrition. The industrial revolutions (and the socialist movements that accompanied them) lead to greater standards of living and increased comfort. While not as essential as food, conveniences like microwaves, carpets and television sets can make life more pleasant and the products of manufacturing enable us to carry out essential work with more ease.

But what happens when people have enough of what they need to lead healthy, comfortable lives? Their consumption slows, and that’s anathema to a growth-based system like market capitalism. No wonder, then, that from the 50s onwards psychologists like Edward Bernays were working with advertising departments in order to create fake needs so as to sell bogus cures. No wonder, then, that we went from being utilitarian in our attitude toward products, buying them for practical purposes and make-do-and-mending in order to get maximum-possible use out of our stuff, to adopting a throwaway culture, replacing stuff just because it’s out of fashion or because it was designed to fail as soon as can be gotten away with and not built to be easily maintained.

General AI and atomically-precise manufacturing could drastically increase the efficiency with which we manage and carry out the rearrangement of materials, lead to a radical reduction in waste and free up time, as we would have the means to automate most of today’s jobs. Once we have automated jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, services and administration, the sensible thing would be to pursue interests outside of the narrow sphere of wage labour. It would be a good time to rediscover the periodic working practices of our ancestors and the greater commitment to social capital typical of tribal living, only with the added bonus of immense technological capability to keep us safe from hardships that do sometimes affect hunter-gatherer societies.

But is such an outcome likely to happen when it has to evolve within a system based on a throwaway culture and where work is seen as virtuous in and of itself to the extent that ‘spare time’ is considered to be something that should be filled with pointless tasks? What I am saying is that markets have already proven themselves capable of creating scarcity where little real needs exist, so it is not too great a leap of imagination to suppose that the moral indignation that stems from the attitude ‘time is money’ and ‘you are misspending my time’ could work against what should be capitalism’s greatest triumph, which is to unlock the potential abundance inherent in the Earth’s richness of resources and elevate us to positions where we can live comfortable lives that need not come with the condition that some have to adopt extreme levels of frugality, and where we are free to become all we can be within a more rounded existence. Instead of that promising outcome, we might well just fill the technological-unemployment gap with make-work and bullshit jobs.

What a waste of time it would be if that were to happen.


Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

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