Let's Cut Out All These “Bullsh*t Jobs,” says Anthropologist David Graeber

It's time we talked about working less. While some argue that we shorten the working week, others favor cutting out pointless, time-filler jobs altogether. 

 

 


Abundant, paid work might be an old-world way of measuring prosperity. After all, many manufacturing jobs are being taken over by bots, leaving those without computer science or relevant degrees in the dust, without work. Chris Twomey, policy director of the non-profit organization Western Australian Council of Social Service, argues we shouldn’t be trying to create more jobs; instead, we should be working less. 

Twomey's essay is one part of a series of essays put out by the Green Institute, all working together to create a larger conversation surrounding a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a plan that gives people unconditional, free money regardless of employment. The Green Institute remains agnostic on whether a UBI is what we need in order to fix many of the issues we face, including inequality and a shrinking job market. But they agree it’s a conversation worth having, if only to find a way to create a better, fairer society.

Technology is helping to make a future of less work possible, however, the noise of politics has created a distorted message. Our politicians are going around trying to bring back the jobs, says Twomey. Many in America’s heartland feel like President-elect Donald Trump will help bring the factories back from China. Here’s the problem, China is a scapegoat for the real issue. The factories have been coming back, and the jobs? Not quite as much. Because of the rise of automation, factories have been hiring only a fraction of the workers.

“Computers and automation are creating a world with fewer and fewer paid jobs, and more insecure work,” Twomey writes. “Education and training, supporting innovation, are important in this context. But they will not be sufficient. Working less, sharing jobs, and institutionally supporting people to do so, will be vital.”

The world is changing around us, which requires a shift in how we perceive work. Work is necessary, but do we really need 40 hours of it each week?

Here we arrive at the idea of fewer jobs, more shared work, and more meaningful work. “Technology has the capacity to free us from tedious and mundane work and enable us to pursue more meaningful and productive activities.”

Anthropologist David Graeber says our capitalist society has managed to create “bullshit jobs.” These are areas of industry that have little to no value other than to provide work for people to do – like a symptom of Soviet socialism. Middle managers who file inconsequential reports no-one will read. Unnecessary administrators who orchestrate meetings. Or take telemarketers. If all these were to go away, no one would miss them. This is what Graeber defines as a “bullshit job.”

“It seems to be this idea that work is a value in itself,” Graeber said in an interview.

What we need to realize is there’s also value in leisure from a health and environmental standpoint. Leisure is time to create, invent, educate, care for our family, and more.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.