Column: Missing: Sense of Purpose

Missing: Sense of Purpose

At this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, sociologist Arlie Hochschild is giving a talk called “We have Outsourced Ourselves”, centred around the following enquiry:

Remote assistants respond to calls and emails. Life coaches assist with personal decisions. Smartphone apps tell us where to eat dinner. Nameologists help choose names for babies that will be raised by live-in au pairs.

Welcome to an emerging world, where the individual is a client in every interaction. Traditional functions of family and friends have been replaced by hired help and consultants. It may save us time, but what do we lose by handing over control of our personal lives to third-parties? Who are we if our jobs, our houses, our furniture, and our spouses are all recommended to us by experts or algorithms. If we are the sum of our decisions, then what’s left when those decisions have been handed over entirely to others?

With my morbid technophobia and general mistrust of contemporary society, this is one of a long stream of subjects that keeps me awake at night.

It is the reason I put off getting a smart phone for many years. I am endlessly wary of a device that does everything for you, reducing what little practical capabilities I have to those of a vegetable. Want to know the weather? Don’t step outside, just check your phone. Need to know where you are? Don’t look around, just check Google Maps.

And as Hochschild’s stream of examples shows, we outsource ourselves through more than just the compact robots in our pockets, those all-knowing, all-seeing yet innocuously titled “smart phones.”

Call me paranoid, ask to see my tin-foil hat, but surely this isn’t healthy. How can it not at least slightly alienate us from our Sense Of Purpose to have all our decision-making and survival-ensuring activities completed for us? We are biologically programmed to get a boost of endorphins, a chemical reward, from completing practical duties that help ourselves (e.g “cooking a meal for our family”, “building a bamboo shade in the sweltering heat”, “gardening”). These tasks, however minimal, give us a sense of satisfaction. But as it stands, in a capitalist system, we have those tasks completed for us by others, while we ourselves perform a selected task for others. If we feel that our own task is contributing to society then that can give us the Sense of Purpose that we lose by providing for ourselves in such an outsourced, distant and deferred fashion. But what if we are unable to see how our selected task actually contributes to society? What of our Sense of Purpose then?

This is the question put forth by anthropologist David Graeber in a recent article which has now been republished in several countries thanks to its enormous resonance among readers (and resulting page hits). Graeber notes the massive shift in employment between 1910 and 2000 from domestic servant, industry and agriculture roles to professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service roles. While the former set of occupations are directly involved in producing the things we need to live, the latter’s link is less visible. Obviously employees earn their bread and butter through service roles, but they’re not making the bread and butter themselves. They see the bread and butter at the end of the week, but from their office desks they are pretty remote from the processes that bring them the food on their tables, the roof over their head.

Graeber dubs these new administrative and bureaucratic roles “bullshit jobs” –  those roles where no one is quite sure why they exist. Things like “change managers” and “adjustment officers.” I personally wouldn’t go so far as to label them “bullshit jobs,” but I second Graeber’s point that the link between these roles and a direct contribution to society is less evident than in, say, teaching. Or nursing, train-driving, farming. And I second his suggestion that many (though obviously not all) of these workers fail to see the point of their jobs themselves. Though his evidence on this point was anecdotal, the comments sections of the article in its various publications seemed to confirm it. Literally hundreds of commenters gave insights similar to the following examples (and no, not all of them were public servants):

I can relate to this, I spent 10 years in the Federal public service, basically writing policies that no-one ever read, and procedures that no-one ever followed.

I could just as easily have flipped burgers at McDonalds, for all the brain power required It’s just that the big yellow M wouldn’t have paid me over $100k a year to do it.


I worked in the public service previously, in a job of which the only duties were to maintain a publication / procedure ” out of date” spreadsheet and send emails to subject matter experts advising them publications needed updating. Talk about pointless ! It was an aps4 job and, whats worse, answered to an aps6 who had exactly the same role only with the extra responsibility of meeting with the subject expert and forcing them to update publications when they were overdue. She spent most of her day complaining about the office air conditioning temperature and eating morning or afternoon tea. Enough said!

The malaise and disillusionment of these many commenters echoes Graeber’s diagnosis when he writes, “this is a profound psychological violence. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”

Adding insult to injury, there seems to be an inverse correlation between how rewarding a job is and how much the employee is paid. Anecdotally at least, those jobs that are cited as particularly rewarding are things like first aid, charity work, teaching, nursing, saving people from house fires. Jobs that involve directly helping others. And yet, with the exception of doctors and surgeons, these jobs are almost universally underpaid. And thus cost of living pressures lure us away from these gratifying roles and unto the labyrinth of bureaucracy and corporate convolution, where we spend as much time in meetings and motivational seminars as we do actually producing and creating things.

After thirty or forty hours chained to the desk, we have no time left to pursue our hobbies and passions. There is little time to spend with friends and family. Rewind to the 30s, the 40s, and even the 70s, when economists predicted that by 2013, our technological advancements would leave us with a fifteen-hour working week. What happened to that possibility? If the technology exists, why aren’t we marshaling it to reduce work hours and produce enough for all rather than letting the logic of the market eternally enslave us and render us permanently struggling to make ends meet in a world of plenty?

It is my contention that we are consumed by malaise and anxiety because we can’t see the link between our day-to-day activities and our survival. Not having to struggle to meet our basic needs each day is a luxury, and one I wouldn’t want to trade in, but it also deprives us of the Sense of Purpose that that struggle offers. I think that it’s because we aren’t gripped perpetually by that basic survival drive that we find it harder to see the Meaning of Things. And the further away our jobs get from an obvious contribution to society, the more we lose sight of our own significance.

Arlie Hoschild delivers her talk ‘We Have Outsourced Ourselves‘ at Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2013. Tickets are selling fast so get in now!



Annika Blau is a freelance writer from Sydney with a lot of opinions. Her writing explores what pop culture tells us about ourselves, and pairs the teachings of academia with those of the supermarket aisle. She wants to know why we don’t examine Kanye West with the same academic rigour as The Cantebury Tales, and finds Lady Gaga as revealing as the census. More of her writing can be found at annikablau@blogspot.com.au.

Read the rest of ‘Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower’ here.


(Banner image from Quinn Dombrowsky)