Can you get paid to do nothing?

From Bullshit Jobs to Japan’s Rental-do-nothing-man, we look at jobs that promise to pay you to do nothing. Can you get wealthy without lifting a finger?

Can you get paid to do nothing

Getting paid to do nothing might seem like a good candidate if offered three wishes by a mythical Genie, but even ChatGPT, as close as we can get to a magical assistant irl, will tell you that you can’t get something for nothing. So, we’ve looked at examples that, on the surface, suggest you really can get paid to do nothing to find out what the inevitable catch is. 

The Japanese Rental-Do-Nothing Man

Shoji Morimoto is a 39-year-old Japanese man who, in his own words, gets paid to do nothing. He has made an art out of being the equivalent of a cardboard cutout companion, hired to fill a seat or ease a socially awkward situation with his inanimate presence.

Rental-san, as he’s known in Japan, gets paid 10,000 yen a session or £64 to be a silent dining partner for a lonely divorcee or a friendly face waving at you as you cross the Marathon finishing line.

The idea of paying someone to ease the pain of tricky social situations isn’t that unusual in the regimented societies of Korea and Japan, but Morimoto has managed to elevate his nothingness to cult status. 

Social media’s obsession with life hacks, hustle and shortcuts reflects a growing resentment of work. So if you fantasise about the idea of being paid to do jack, the rental-do-nothing-man is an attention-grabbing headline.

The reality is that Mr Morimoto doesn’t pass the no free lunch test, at least not by the textbook economic definition, which is what we abide by; nothing can ever be genuinely free.

Morimoto has cornered his niche market of doing nothing for cash, and many people now hire him for the novelty.

The Independent, 23rd March 2022

Morimoto could easily be doing something far more enjoyable with his time, so though it might appear on the surface that he’s doing nothing, he gets compensated for his time the same as any other job.

In fact, he’s turned himself into a do-nothing brand with a tv series, astute social media and books, all further evidence that Rental-san does is far more demanding than his job title. 

Morimoto functions as emotional ballast, giving people support in socially awkward situations or even easing the pain and trauma in moments people want a non-judgmental companion. 

So what Morimoto cleverly markets as doing nothing is closer to social work than skiving, for which he receives an above-market rate.

But a surprisingly large section of the working population is getting handsomely paid to do pointless work, putting Rental-do-nothing-man in the shade, yet aren’t anywhere near as happy as you may think. 

The Bullshit Job phenomenon

In 2013, the late-great anthropologist, David Graeber, wrote an article for Strike Magazine – a not-profit publication focused on social justice, with the nifty title “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant”

It was based on an idea that Graeber had been kicking around for a while but felt mainstream publishers would judge too toxic: Many jobs are well-paid yet pointless, and the people doing them are fully aware of that reality.

What Graeber suggested is borderline seditious for capitalism; a huge portion of white-collar work is unnecessary, the equivalent of digging a hole and filling it in again. That needless inefficiency should only be tolerated in planned economies, not free-market capitalism. 

But his hunch was proven accurate in spectacular fashion when the article went viral, generating a torrent of bullshit job testimonies. 

Many personal stories highlighted employment that didn’t even maintain a facade of work, dispensing with the hole-digging charade, bringing us tantalisingly close to the possibility that many people are getting paid to do nothing. 

But what is even more surprising is that once Graeber started to pull on this loose thread in the fabric of the 9-5 convention, he realised that far from discovering the Rat Race lottery, the vast majority of testimonies from bullshit jobbers spoke of the soul-destroying trauma of pointless employment. What Graeber called ‘a scar across our collective soul’.

There was so much more to this story that Graeber created a website to collect more anecdotes, which in 2018, became a book Bullshit Jobs: The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it”, highly recommended for both its dark humour and philosophical insight into the meaning we derive from work.

We’ve written elsewhere about the struggles of Victorian Londoners scratching a living. How have we got from Sewer Hunters and Pure Finders, who resorted to picking up dog shit with their bare hands to get by, to paying people to sit and do nothing?

It certainly isn’t because we’ve discovered a new kind of work-related alchemy, but rather a reflection of the failures of modern human organisations at scale, where market efficiency falls over in the face of human irrationality.

If the subject interests you, we have a separate article looking at the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs in greater detail, but our task here is to establish whether a celebrated anthropologist stumbled upon an undiscovered cohort of the working population, quietly being paid to do nothing? 

In a literal sense, the answer is no, because however mundane or pointless a job, staring at a blank screen or ticking a meaningless box, it is a use of your time which could be used doing something else to which you would attach utility.

So where does that leave us in our hunt for an elusive effort-free payday? All is not lost; we just have to employ a little lateral thinking and look at the problem from a different angle.

Deflation – How to get richer doing nothing

There’s a popular saying about wealth. If you want to feel rich, live next door to someone poor. The aphorism is easy to understand, wealth is relative, which works whether you compare your hill of beans to the guy’s next door or if the measure of the value of your beans changes.

Most people understand the idea of inflation, it’s just a clever way to say that stuff gets more expensive. Put another way, we feel poorer, even though we have exactly the same amount in our bank account because inflation erodes money’s purchasing power.

The reverse scenario is less familiar to Joe Public; deflation happens when prices fall, making your money go further. Abracadabra, you’re instantly wealthier yet have done nothing.

Now here comes the inevitable and annoying but. Deflation is beneficial if you already have cash; it doesn’t magically conjure money up, Genie style.

In fact, if you have less than no money, i.e. you’re in debt, inflation is your friend, decreasing the value of what you owe.

The second disclaimer with deflation is that it isn’t a lever we can just pull, and even if it were that simple, most governments target modest inflation and fear deflation (partly because of the debt shrinking trick). So, there are plenty of reasons for a clear warning in red letters right next to a ‘break for instant deflation’ button. 

Japan has experienced decades of deflation, which has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of delayed consumption and stagnant growth.

But some people see deflation as a way to cure all our economic ills, and looking at America’s $33 trillion national debt, there is certainly a need for medical intervention.

Jeff Booth’s book ‘The Price of Tomorrow’ argues why deflation is the key to an abundant future, much of which hinges on the benefits of technology in reducing the cost of everything from energy to manufacturing. 

Booth was a little too early to reference the impact of ChatGPT, but an updated edition would likely add a chapter on how AI will revolutionise so many industries, bringing down costs and sprinkling some of that magic deflationary dust.

But an equal number of people feel that AI and other technological advancements will bring about a new age of serfdom for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, locked out of a shrinking digital economy and scrabbling to make ends meet on zero-hours contracts of the gig economy. 

So thanks, deflation; nice try but no cigar. It seems that Bullshit Jobs are as close to a free lunch as you will get along the reward axis with next to no effort, but Graeber’s anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a Faustian pact for which you’ll end up paying spiritually.

No Free Lunch

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but if you’re hungry to find out why, we’re here to help.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the no free lunch concept, as well as the broader philosophy behind the idea that nothing can ever be regarded as free.

We look at our relationship with money and truth, examining all of the supposed shortcuts, life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.