On the phenomenon of meaningful jobs: How the social economy puts politics to work

Authors: Valentina Castellini*, University of Toronto
Topics: Economic Geography, Cultural Geography, Qualitative Research
Keywords: work, meaningful work, precarious labour, social economies, future of work
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 2:35 PM / 4:15 PM
Room: Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Since 2013, anthropologist David Graeber has been debating what he calls “the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.” He argues that contemporary capitalism creates unnecessary jobs which, instead of contributing to society, seem to serve the unique purpose of keeping individuals longer at work while simultaneously demeaning their agency. Graeber’s argument generalizes the experiences of relatively privileged workers. Yet despite these limitations, his interventions have prompted responses from both within and beyond scholarly circles, as they intercept a longstanding debate on the multiple meanings and functions of work. But the conceptualization of work that emerges from debates on meaningless jobs obscures several elements such as the need to advance workplace fairness, dignity and inclusion. Drawing upon my research on labour conditions in social economy organizations in Italy, I analyze the opposite of pointless jobs, thus providing a different angle to look at work’s meaning and purpose. Employers such as cooperatives or nonprofit organizations typically provide jobs that indeed make “a meaningful contribution to the world.” Nonetheless, work in the social economy is often characterized by long hours and relatively low salaries or benefits. I argue that this contradiction is the product of the overlap between politics and work that characterizes socially oriented organizations. Workers’ political values are put to work on the shop floor and produce advantages for employers. A feminist perspective is essential to envisage a future of work that is both meaningful and fair.

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