Economic Growth

This is our chance to completely redefine the meaning of work

We dream of the stars, then end up doing 'socially useless' jobs Image: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Alex Gray
Senior Writer, Formative Content
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Economic Growth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how The Digital Economy is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

The Digital Economy

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

When you were a child what did you dream of doing one day? Did you want to be an astronaut, a nurse, or a teacher? Perhaps you imagined finding a cure for cancer, or working out how to send the first humans to Mars?

Did you end up living your dream?

While many of us dreamt of doing meaningful jobs, chances are the work we get paid to do doesn’t contribute to society as much as we would like it to.

But the nature of work is changing – and dramatically so. As businesses adopt new technologies many of today’s jobs will cease to exist, and many new ones will appear.

And amid all this tumultuous change we have an opportunity to completely redefine the meaning of work – and in doing so make a big difference to society.

That’s according to author and economist Rutger Bregman, who spoke to the World Economic Forum about his vision for our new working lives.

‘Socially useless’ jobs

A recent paper by the Tinbergen Institute in the Netherlands revealed that a quarter of workers are dissatisfied with their jobs. The study of 100,000 workers from 47 countries found that 8% perceive their job as “socially useless”, while a further 17% are doubtful about the usefulness of their job.

So what does work really mean anyway? For many it’s a hierarchical relationship between employer and employee, in which the latter is paid and contributes a portion to the government in the form of taxes.

But there’s another way to think about work, argues Bregman. Work should be defined simply as doing something that adds value to society.

Of course, this type of work already exists. No-one would argue that doctors, teachers, care workers, cleaners, and those working in garbage disposal aren’t doing useful work. But Bregman says there are a great many jobs that contribute nothing to society – so-called “bullshit jobs”.

Bregman argues that the social usefulness of many jobs has been in decline since the middle of the last century. And the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is only going to exacerbate the problem.

“In the 50s, 60s and 70s, if you were really talented in your field you would probably go into research or government,” he says.

“But then what started to happen in the 80s in advanced economies is that it became much more financially attractive to move into financial services and the tech industry. While there is useful work being done there, we also know, especially with the financial sector, that it involves a huge amount of people getting rich at expense of others.

He adds: “I’m not saying all banking jobs are useless, but it should be a service to help the economy operate more smoothly, not this behemoth.”

Bregman cites the now oft-repeated quote by Jeff Hammerbacher, an early employee of Facebook who quickly became disillusioned with the company’s work, as an example: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

While bankers and technologists are perceived as wealth creators for economies, the fact is that without useful jobs, societies would crumble.

“Think about all the work that volunteers do. They don’t get paid and they don’t pay taxes, but obviously it would be a disaster if they went on strike,” Bregman points out.

“Then there’s the huge amount of unpaid, valuable work that goes on every day: looking after children, caring for the elderly, washing the dishes – without this work, society as we know it would break down.”

Redefining work

So how does Bregman foresee the nature of work changing?

“It starts with recognizing that socially useless jobs exist,” he states. “When I first started writing about this, people would ask: why would there be any people with jobs that don’t add much? It must be valuable or else why would they be paid.

“But I have seen more and more research that says people’s work isn’t adding anything. We’re not talking about teachers, police officers, nurses, or cleaners here; we’re talking mostly about people with wonderful LinkedIn profiles.

“If you look at the report, 21% of sales, marketing, advertising and public relations professionals think that their job is socially useless, as opposed to 0% of librarians.”

The critical thing in the Dutch study is that the vast majority of workers care about holding a socially useful job and suffer when they consider it useless.

Bregman urges us to change our assumptions about work. The idea that jobs in the public sector come up short against those in the private sector is one such misnomer, he says.

“The amount of socially useless jobs is four times higher in the private sector than in the public sector, but this goes against the grain of what we are told; that governments are inefficient, that the public sector could learn a lot from the private sector’s dynamism. It’s the other way round.”

In fact, he continues, governments have long played an understated role in innovation, citing the work of the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato.

“Her research has shown that all the great innovation of the past 100 years has been on the back of researchers on a government payroll.

“Take the iPhone for example, the things that underpin its technology – the internet, batteries, voice recognition – all of these things were invented by researchers who worked for government. I’m not saying that Apple didn’t do cool things, but that’s not the story that we’ve been told."

So why did the nature of work change?

Bregman says: “In the 50s and 60s, the financial sector was a service industry. Being a banker was like being a headteacher – it was a well respected job but (the pay) wasn’t spectacular. Then we changed laws and institutions and made it possible for banking to get bigger. It didn’t happen by a force of nature, it was a political decision.”

Universal Basic Income

Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

One crucial element that will drive the redefining of work, according to Bregman, is the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI).

The idea is that governments would hand out an equal stipend to every citizen, regardless of existing income, that would be sufficient to meet basic needs like food and housing.

The point of a UBI is that it would give us the freedom to redefine the nature of work.

“Let’s imagine that you’re 17 or 18 years old, and you’re thinking about what you want to do. Your interests might be the arts, history or anthropology, but your parents or your relatives might urge you to focus on that later, telling you that you ought to look for a job that pays a decent salary.

“So you go and get a well-paid job, do an MBA and 10 to 15 years later you’re depressed and in the grip of a mid-life crisis and then end up doing what you’ve always wanted to.

“The UBI will change this. Kids can fall back on the basic income if their passion doesn’t work out. It cuts out 20 years of waste.”

In the shorter term, he adds, the people who already have meaningful jobs will get increased bargaining power.

“The cleaner, garbage collector, the nurse, and people doing very important work without pay, if they stopped working, people would notice. It’s standard economics, they would have more bargaining power and their wages would have to go up. Whereas a person in a socially useless job like a telemarketer could go on strike but no-one would notice or care, so they wouldn’t get that extra power and their wages would go down.”

So what would happen to the bankers and the PR gurus? “Industries would shrink and that would be a good thing,” states Bregman.

Proponents of a basic income argue that we need to mitigate the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the workplace. One of the biggest worries about the future labour market is that new technology will lead to a mass displacement of jobs, but Bregman doesn’t think this will happen.

“Automation throughout history has never meant mass unemployment. We should never underestimate the power of capitalism to come up with more socially useless jobs. Theoretically, it’s possible we will all just be pretending to work.”

Image: The Economist

Many economists are unsure how we would pay for a basic income. Finland recently gave up on a UBI experiment saying that the costs were too great.

This interactive chart from The Economist shows how much basic income a government could pay out if it scrapped its non-health transfer payments and spread them evenly across the population in a single payment. Finland comes out on top, with a $10,500 annual payment, but the estimate for Mexico would fall well short of supplying the benefit that the UBI is designed to cover.

Have you read?

A new measure of economic growth

But Bregman says that rather than focusing on the numbers we should concentrate on shifting our mindsets. He argues that the global economy works too much on “modern piracy” with some getting rich at the expense of others.

Bregman isn’t opposed to growth – describing it as “a wonderful thing” – but he has added his voice to the growing call to ditch GDP as a measure of economic health.

“Some people say we should use a dashboard of indicators which would include happiness, wellbeing and pollution levels, but others say we still need one number that everyone looks at,” he says.

“My position is that anything would be better than GDP. In fact, it would be hard to come up with anything worse than GDP.

“It’s such a ridiculous measure of prosperity – when people are depressed and living a polluting lifestyle and they’re getting divorced and need a lawyer it’s great for GDP, but if they are living a relaxed lifestyle and they’re taking care of their own kids and their family and they don't take a plane to go on vacation then it isn’t good for GDP.

“The obstacle is not about economics or technology, it’s ideology. We have to redefine so many of our basic concepts.”

UBI as ‘venture capital’

One of those concepts is the idea that if we were handed free money, we would all turn into the worst versions of ourselves – lazy and workshy. Bregman says we have to dispense with the notion that human beings are inherently selfish and that, removed from the need to work, we would revert to some sort of savage version of ourselves.

Indeed a study published last year backs up his position. Research by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy on a UBI program that has run in Alaska for decades showed that people still went out to work: “Our research shows that the possible reductions in employment seem to be offset by increases in spending that in turn increase the demand for more workers,” concludes the study.

Bregman says: “We’re all basically nice, meaning-seeking creatures, and if you assume the best, that's what you get out. It’s the power of expectation.

“What we have now is a welfare state where people are required to prove that they are sick or depressed enough that they will never get anything done, and then we give them money. UBI is opposite: it says I believe you’ve got great ideas, here's some venture capital and let’s see what you can come up.

“And we shouldn’t worry about that money being wasted, because it’s this kind of investment that spurs innovation.”

In addition, Bregman argues that if we were all given extra time, we would know what to do with it and would use it constructively. “The nations that spend the most hours slumped in front of the TV are the same nations that have the longest working hours. The shorter hours we work, the more creative and useful things we do with our time, such as volunteering and caring for others.”

These solutions are largely confined to high-income economies, however. “This is an issue that society starts experiencing when they get richer. In Colombia and Brazil you talk about how UBI can solve poverty – but when you start moving north, the conversation changes.”

The jury is still out on whether UBI works in practice and whether it could bring about the sort of societal change Bregman suggests, but he is delighted that it is now a topic discussed on social media, in lecture halls, and at economic conferences.

“The first time I wrote about basic income was five years ago, and back then no-one was talking about it. Now the idea is everywhere and there are experiments around the globe. The first talks I gave were for small groups of anarchists and now been I’ve been invited to the World Economic Forum,” Bregman says.

“It just shows how ideas change the world. Life-changing ideas never start in Washington, Westminster or Davos, they start at the fringes.

“In a basic income society, wages would better reflect societal value, and kids would live out their dreams.”

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Economic GrowthFourth Industrial RevolutionEducation and Skills
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The global supply of equities is shrinking – here's what you need to know

Emma Charlton

April 24, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum