A Bullsh*t Free Covid-19 Recovery

Oliver Harman discusses the types of jobs we should value and encourage in the Covid-19 recovery. 

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. — George Bernard Shaw


Jobs and the 37%

The COVID recovery seeks to take many forms, green, inclusive, just and more recently, according to Rishi Sunak, viable. However, the recent loss of anthropologist, anarchist and activist David Graeber prompts the addition of one more, a bullsh!t free recovery.

As policymakers and commentators struggle or decline to define job viability, perhaps Graeber’s 2013 essay and 2018 book ‘Bullsh*t Jobs’ can assist. David outlined forms of employment which workers described as bullsh!t and not of value or worth in our economy. Namely, flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickets and taskmaskers. In contrast to just a shit job, a bullsh!t job is a job that the person doing it believes is pointless.

The British public agreed, the following survey found 37% of the population did not think their job made a meaningful contribution to society, or, in short, it was bullsh!t. Perhaps then, rather than government prescribed viability, to move society forward, self-diagnosed meaningful jobs should be the ones we should be prioritising. For this, we can ask, how many jobs out there are better left undone?

Firms and the 30%

In addition to bullsh!t jobs, we should think of which bullsh!t firms are worth prioritising. Those bringing meaningful value creation to our economy or those of a rent-seeking extractive nature. Some private company policy is taking this approach, Unilever for example, shedding brands that had no purpose or cannot prove meaningful impact on the world. Arguably, public policy should do the same, perhaps stopping the estimated 30% of COVID bailout funding going to firms with links to tax havens. As we indebt ourselves and children with the debt from such bailouts, the public should be having real conversations about whether we want to save such bullsh!t firms.

Wages and the 22%

While there can be no objective measure of social value, few disagree key workers as 22% of working individuals should receive meaningful pay for their meaningful work. David proposed to give essential workers special bonuses worth multiples their annual salary. At the same time, highly paid CEOs make do with occasional rounds of applause. Instead, we see a rare above-inflation pay rise of 2-3% still. In real terms, wages remain below that of 2010. A step in the right direction, but to many, still bullsh!t.

Perhaps, as the UK moves past COVID relief and onto recovery and reform, it is worth incorporating bullsh!t to our thinking. Do citizens want to return to bullsh!t jobs, whether viable or not? If these jobs or bullsh!t firms were to disappear tomorrow, how would this interact with unemployment? Rather than bullsh!t, what steps can people take to build purpose instead? COVID-19 gave society a taste of this experience over lockdown. As a collective, we should decide how much bullsh!t we want in our society for the future.

Oliver Harman is an Economist for Cities that Work, an International Growth Centre initiative based at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He works primarily with local government Ministries and Mayoral teams across Africa and South Asia, translating economic research into clear urban policy guidance. His primary UK interest is devolution and empowering cities.

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