Why most of our jobs today are effectively pointless

The society we’re born into has a large division in wealth. A small number of people are born extremely wealthy, most of them having inherited their wealth from family members. A somewhat larger portion of people are relatively wealthy, as a result of a long history of investing their income. They benefited from real estate bubbles and the stock market bubble that started in the 90’s and resulted from the gradual death of the Glass-Steagall act.

Wealth represents a claim to the fruits of the Earth. Before civilization, your claim to the fruits of the Earth was effectively as large as your physical constitution could enforce. Today your claim to the fruits of the Earth is based on an international ledger known as the banking system, that is given a state enforced monopoly on the right to create money out of thin air through fractional reserve banking.

The industrial revolution made it suddenly possible for a tiny fraction of the population to feed, clothe and house the rest of us. As a result, we are now at the mercy of this minority who can effectively hold us hostage and demand something of value in exchange for the goods we need to survive but are no longer allowed to provide for ourselves. Thus, large numbers of people moved to the city, hoping to find some labor that would provide them with the essentials they need to live. Today we are all day-laborers, forced to labor for others in exchange for a portion of food we had no role in producing. In medieval societies, such people stood at the very bottom of the social ladder.

As a society we tend to agree that claims to the fruits of the Earth can’t simply be redistributed from those who could buy a container ship full of apples to those who can’t afford even a single apple. To earn your share of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity, you either have to be an endangered species or work for a human being who is willing to grant you some of his share.

The utilitarian rationale for this is generally the idea that this societal agreement is fair and increases the total amount of resources available for everyone, thereby increasing the net happiness of society. There are a large number of reasons of course to dispute this notion. We can ask ourselves for example whether the gambling and cigarette industries genuinely increase the size of the pie, or whether they merely abuse the desperation of people living in poverty, but I will expand on this later on.

The more important question to ponder for now is what effect the notion that work for others is the way through which we earn our share of food has on our culture as a whole. One effect it has is that different social classes find themselves opposed to each other. The full time employed middle class sees itself as having “earned” its share of the world’s resources, whereas the irregularly employed poor dependent on government subsidies are seen as parasites on the middle class.

The middle class narrative is essentially that work should be seen as a necessary moral good, as you provide a service that delivers a benefit to others, so the middle class sees itself as morally superior to the poor who do not work. Most people don’t enjoy their work, so there is an element of sacrifice for the greater good in this narrative. In fact, the greater the element of sacrifice, the more prestigious and desirable the job generally becomes.

Politicians and policymakers tend to come from middle class backgrounds and depend on middle class voters, so they tend to subscribe to this narrative. Governments need to stimulate the growth in the number of available jobs, to lift people out of poverty and give them a sense of purpose in life. Salaried labor is nowadays no longer seen as a burdensome task, but rather a precious resource that has to be protected, from robots, Mexican immigration and competition with China. The Protestant work ethic that gave rise to the modern economic system has become culturally ingrained in every developed nation.

Under these conditions, a rarely challenged consensus emerges that government ought to pursue a maximum growth in the available number of jobs. There are differences between the political left and the right on what measures government needs to take, but the diagnosis, that new jobs have to be created, is hardly ever questioned by anyone with serious influence.

It makes perfect sense that nobody ever questions our cultural value of hard work of course, as the system is self-stabilizing. Anyone who seeks to gain power in a democratic culture has to work hard for most of his life. Those who are willing to spend most of their life working hard are unlikely to come out and declare that the total amount of work needs to be reduced because we’re wasting each other’s time.

The notion that hard work is a moral good depends entirely on the idea that it provides a net benefit to others in society. The element of sacrifice is relevant, but sacrifice by itself does not turn hard work into a moral good. To illustrate this, you have to simply look at examples of sacrifice that we agree did not provide a net benefit to others in society. Anders Breivik sacrificed years of his life, his good reputation and his freedom for what he saw as a good cause, but because the impact of his actions were detrimental to society as a whole, we see his hard work as a moral evil. In fact, we don’t refer to acts of terrorism as hard work or sacrifice, to avoid tainting these concepts that we see as morally good.

It’s possible for your job to provide a net detriment to society, yet for you to be paid for it. We understand intuitively that such jobs exist, but we tend not to talk about those jobs, because they are so widespread. Many of us have had such a job at some point of our life. Although some of these jobs are illegal, many are perfectly legal. A common example would be working as a salesman aggressively pushing products on elderly people through the telephone. In practice, nobody benefits from the existence of such a job, except for the shareholders behind such a corporation, who benefit from selling a product to people that provides no genuine benefit to them.

This was a benign example, but far more monstrous examples exist. A particularly repulsive example would be people who work for Nestle and are tasked with creating marketing campaigns for their formula milk for third world countries. We know that breast feeding is superior to formula feeding, but in third world countries, the marketing of infant formula is simply deadly.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of infants die from diarrhea because they drank infant formula produced with contaminated water. Nestle has a habit of sending sales people dressed as nurses into third world hospitals, where they then give free packages of infant formula to new mothers. The mothers use the free infant formula, which is designed to last as long as needed to stop lactation. When the package is empty, the mother can not produce breast milk anymore herself and is now dependent on Nestle’s product. Besides impoverishing her, it often forces her to use unsafe water, which kills the infant through diarrhea. Estimates are that 1,5 million infants die this way every year.

It would be relatively uncontroversial to state that a person with such a job for Nestle would provide a greater service to society, simply by quitting their job and applying for welfare instead. This is of course an extreme example, but it serves to illustrate a larger point: If your job provides no net benefit to society, the morally superior decision would be for you to quit your job instead and apply for welfare!

Jobs that don’t provide a net benefit to society are surprisingly common. The reason for this is because we live in a highly technologically advanced economy, where the essential needs of people can be provided for by a small minority. For anyone else who wishes to earn his share of wealth, the best available method becomes to create new psychological needs through marketing techniques, as you face less competition. Thus the profit margin on a designer handbag is higher than on a bag of rye. Herbert Marcuse and others of the Frankfurt school have written more on this subject.

So assuming for a moment that jobs that don’t provide a net benefit to society are relatively common, why don’t people quit these jobs in droves? The main factor to consider is that people are generally not concerned with engaging in moral behavior, but rather, with maintaining a public appearance that their behavior is moral. We’d rather engage in evil while seen as good people by those around us, than to engage in good while seen as evil by those around us. Welfare carries a stigma, while anyone can market his job as carrying a benefit to society.

There are other concerns as well. Many countries have little of a social safety net. People in those countries fare much better financially when they choose to enter an unethical job. Others may see an unethical job as a stepping stone to an ethical job. In an ideal world, an employer would hire you because you refused to dress up like a nurse and hand out infant formula to mothers, in practice a history of employment is necessary to get a desirable job.

Before we’re going to look at jobs that provide no net benefit to society, it has to be noted that there is a category of jobs that do provide a benefit to society, but should not really exist anyway. How is this possible? Some people are forced to carry out a job that only exists as a consequence of the existence of *other* jobs that are a net burden on society. Imagine the person who manages the cafeteria of Nestle’s marketing department. The person provides a genuine service, but the service is merely required because the other people there are occupied with a job that should not exist.

Another category consists of people who perform a job they don’t enjoy that could be automated at a low cost. If you earn 20,000 dollar working behind the counter in a supermarket, while a self-checkout machine could do the job at a yearly cost of 2,000 dollar, society as a whole would be better off if your job did not exist, with the left over 18,000 dollar either handed over to you or distributed to us all in the form of lower food prices. It’s obvious that automation poses a threat in our society, but when a looming “jobs-shortage” is seen as a problem, the real issue lies with how wealth is distributed.

Listed below are some examples to illustrate how large the problem of pointless jobs really is. It has to be noted that not all of these jobs can be easily added to arrive at a total figure of the percentage of jobs in our modern society that should not exist, part of the reason being that some people have multiple jobs. A number of jobs may fit multiple categories of pointlessness as well, like a salesperson working for the tobacco industry.

-15 Million Americans work as salespeople for a multilevel marketing company.1 That’s roughly 9% of the employed population. Even if we only want to look at people who invest at least 20 hours every week in this business, we’re still looking at 1.2 million people who spend their days selling products people don’t really want. Multilevel marketing is a frequent target of successful lawsuits, as these are essentially pyramid schemes. The total “sales force” in the United States consists of a whopping 62.7 million people.

-Around one percent of the employed population in Canada works in the gambling industry.2 Figures in other developed countries are similar.

-Roughly 0.35% of the employed American population is employed in the tobacco industry.3

-Roughly 4 million Americans are employed in the college industry.4 This is roughly 2.25 percent of the population. Because 53% of recent college graduates don’t work in jobs that require a college degree, a fair estimate would be that about half of the jobs in the college industry don’t really serve a purpose. We’d be left with 1.125% of the population having a pointless job.

-There are 450,000 Americans who work in the debt collection industry. This is roughly 0.25% of the employed population.

-26% of prisoners are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Assuming that law enforcement spends a corresponding 26% of their time addressing non-violent drug offenses and that legalization and treating addiction as a medical issue is a better solution, then roughly 25% of total law enforcement employment is effectively pointless, which comes down to 200.000 pointless jobs, or 0.1% of total jobs. Medical treatment would actually decline, as countries with legalized drugs generally see a decline in drug addiction, as people can seek effective treatment. We would thus expect a decline in medical jobs as well, but this is very hard to quantify.

-In the US, a large amount of medical care is unnecessary. Estimates for this vary, but a conservative estimate puts the unnecessary care at 30% of total medical care.6 These are interventions that have no genuine benefit for the patients. It should be noted that in addition to this, a lot of necessary medical care that does carry benefits could have been prevented, simply through government reform and focus on preventative healthcare through lifestyle changes. This would greatly reduce the disease burden.

A lot of the disease burden in the United States is actually caused by hard work and poverty. Consider the studies done on the effects of long-term sitting on health, the effects of financial worries and hard work on mental health, the effect of unhealthy cheap food on the health of poor children, set up for a lifetime of chronic disease. Considering that health care employs 10.7% of the total US population, getting rid of the unnecessary care would greatly slash the number of jobs. It’s not easy however to directly translate excess health care into job reduction. A rural doctor may not become obsolete, even though his work burden has declined.

-It’s very hard to believe the United States really needs 0.8 cars per capita. Norway has 0.52 per capita, Sweden 0.58, most European countries sit between 0.5 and 0.6. Cuba has a functioning economy and a higher life expectancy than the United States, with less than 5% of the number of cars the US has. The motor vehicles and parts dealers industry employs 1.8 million americans, or roughly 1% of the population.

Considering the advance of driverless cars, the total fleet is expected to shrink drastically. Columbia University’s The Earth Institute estimates the total fleet will decline by 90%, PricewaterhouseCoopers expects a reduction to just 1% of the current total fleet, with accidents declining by 90%. It’s not hard to see how this would lead to another 1.8 million people losing their jobs in the motor vehicle industry. It would also end the jobs of the roughly 800,000 truck drivers the US counts. The technology will be here within years.

Even right now, the car industry employs more people than necessary. Public transport in the US is largely non-existent because the car companies dismantled public transport networks in an effort to sell more cars, in a scandal now known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, which led to criminal prosecution. Indirect effects of a reduction in cars would entail less air pollution thereby leading to higher IQs, again leading to less employment as more intelligent people make less medical costs. These type of feedback effects are difficult to quantify, but they reverberate through the economic system.

-3,3 million people work as cashiers, or, 2% of the population. These are jobs that don’t have to exist. Self-checkout technology already exists, it’s already implemented in many stores. It’s not necessary to have people present while you’re checking out.

If all these jobs are really unnecessary, then why do they still exists? This is an obvious question. Part of the answer is a conflict of interest. Medical organizations that lobby for more emphasis on healthy eating, exercise and preventative care do so with the knowledge that they’re rendering their own jobs obsolete. The General Motors street car conspiracy is a good example of the lengths to which people will go to create their own economic niche, even if society as a whole is much worse off.

Another part of the answer lies in the fact that we simply don’t have our priorities straight. Every politician rambles about how he’s going to create more jobs, but we don’t need more jobs. We think we need more jobs, because we see employment as the only way to have our needs fulfilled. We think we need to keep jobs inside the borders of our nations, because jobs are the path to wealth for our nations, along with education. In reality, wealth is a product of the control over natural resources. In a global economy, control over natural resources is only going to grow increasingly more important.

1 – http://www.network-marketing-business-school.com/Network-Marketing-in-USA.html

2 – http://www.canadiangaming.ca/news-a-articles/cga-media-releases/33-employment-impact-of-gaming-industry-in-canada-much-greater-than-previously-understood.html

3 – http://www.ncagr.gov/markets/commodit/horticul/tobacco/

4 – http://www.statista.com/statistics/232955/employment-in-us-colleges-and-universities/

5 – http://www.debtcollectionanswers.com/Debt-Collection-Statistics.html

6 – http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=744298

7 – http://www.ibtimes.com/healthcare-accounts-107-percent-total-us-employment-report-269053


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